Elizabeth Earl

More relief on the way for fishing industry

Alaska fishing industry stakeholders can now apply for another $50 million in pandemic relief money, but they only have until the end of April to do it. The newest installment comes from the original CARES Act passed in spring 2020, announced by the Secretary of Commerce last May. The federal government made $300 million available across the states and territories with Pacific Ocean coast, with $50 million set aside for Alaska. Commercial fishermen, charter operators, processors, dealers, subsistence users, and aquaculture operations are all eligible. The Alaska Department of Fish and Game, via the Pacific States Marine Fisheries Commission, is helping to coordinate within the state. Rachel Baker, the deputy commissioner of the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, said there were two main reasons it took so long. First, the department didn’t want to issue a relief program that would have an application window in the middle of a busy fishing season and wanted to include the fall fisheries within the window. Second, the department wanted to gather public comments on the plan, which meant two comment periods and revision time. “Those two things together resulted in a longer time to develop the spend plan, and to have a longer eligibility period for applicants to qualify in,” she said. “In hindsight, if we’d known there was going to be a second round of funding, I suppose we might have thought about doing it a little bit differently.” ADFG has been working on its draft distribution plan since last fall, with the first version of its plan out for public comment in October. Fishermen and other fisheries businesses have been eligible for other forms of aid, including the Paycheck Protection Program for small businesses, since last year, but this round of targeted fisheries funding has been long awaited by the industry. But even then, it’s a pretty small amount in the grand scale of things. Frances Leach, executive director of industry group the United Fishermen of Alaska, noted that after depressed demand due to closed restaurants and other retail sources, fishermen across the state saw ex-vessel value declines in the neighborhood of 25 percent last year. “By the time it’s all said and done, (the relief amount is) not a lot,” she said. “When you factor in the amount of commercial fishermen than we had and what we lost, our prices were the worst they’ve been in decades.” The distribution plan is largely based on past revenues compared with pandemic-related losses, with a few exceptions; the subsistence group will receive 5 percent, the aquaculture group 1 percent, and the sport charter group 27 percent. If the amounts had been strictly based on past revenues, the sport charter section would only have received about 5.5 percent, according to the final approved spending plan, which may not account for all the losses the sector experienced in 2020 due to pandemic restrictions. “Between Jan. 1 and Oct. 15 of 2020, the Department of Fish and Game has seen a 54 percent reduction in nonresident sport fishing license sales compared to 2019, nearly $9 million in losses,” the spending plan states. “This dramatic reduction in license sales is only one indication of impacts to the charter sector.” Baker said determining the amount to give to the sportfish charter sector is not entirely based on a formula, in part because the state doesn’t collect the same level of revenue data from charters that it does from commercial operations. The allocation decision was based in part on qualitative information, acknowledging the fact that the charter sector heavily felt the impact of the pandemic from loss of tourism, she said. To qualify for funding, applicants have to show that they lost at least 35 percent in fishery participation revenue between March 1 and Nov. 30, 2020, as a direct or indirect result of the pandemic. Applicants have to have at least been fishing since 2018 and have to be able to provide documentation showing the revenue amounts. One change between the draft plans and the final is that applicants have to either be Alaska residents or nonresidents who did not apply for aid in another state or territory, meet all the requirements, and did not receive a Section 12005 allocation. At-sea catcher-processors have to apply to their homeport state, and nonresident charter operators who don’t have an Alaska business license have to apply in their state of residence. After administrative fees, about $49.4 million is available for distribution. Of that, $17.3 million is set aside for commercial fishermen, $15.8 million for processors, $13.3 million for sport charter operators, $2.5 million for subsistence users, and $493,711 for aquaculture operations. Each application type has a subset of requirements. Applications can be submitted on paper or electronically to the Pacific States Marine Fisheries Commission, but there’s a difference in deadline. Those submitting applications electronically have until April 30, but anyone mailing in a paper application has to postmark it on or before April 23. Any late applications won’t be processed. The December 2020 omnibus COVID-19 relief bill includes another boost in fisheries-specific relief funding, but the amount and distribution plans have yet to be finalized. Baker said the state doesn’t know the exact amount or timeline for new relief funds yet from that bill. She encouraged anyone with questions about applying to read through the spending plan, which is available on the Pacific States Marine Fisheries Commission’s website. Elizabeth Earl can be reached at [email protected]

Board of Fisheries reverses decision to double up meetings

After the COVID-19 pandemic disrupted the normal Board of Fisheries meetings, the members were left with a choice: delay all meetings by a year, or double up in the next cycle and try to catch up? On March 8, the board decided to reverse an earlier decision and postpone its meetings scheduled for the 2021-22 cycle to the following year, and conduct the meetings moved back from 2020 to its 2021-22 meeting slots. That means the normal interval between meetings will be delayed by an extra year, but it avoids the board members, staff, and members of the public from having to jam two cycles into the space of one. Now, the Southeast and Yakutat finfish and shellfish meeting, the Prince William Sound/Upper Copper and Upper Susitna Rivers finfish and shellfish meeting, and statewide shellfish meetings will be held in early 2022. That gives the board and staff enough time to put out a call for proposals and plan to hold meetings in person. Regular Board of Fisheries meetings are busy, often-crowded affairs. Stakeholders come from all over an affected region and participate in committee meetings, talk personally with the board members on breaks, and work in private groups on proposals during the meeting days. In the larger regions, like Cook Inlet and Southeast, the meetings can stretch up to two weeks at a time, with meetings running all day. In the fall, the board members opted not to hold this year’s meetings via teleconference or with limited attendance because of issues with equitable access. But in January, to avoid a yearlong delay, the board members voted to hold two meetings at once. During a meeting March 8, Alaska Department of Fish and Game Commissioner Doug Vincent-Lang emphasized that the department does not have the money to do that. Estimates place the cost to do that at about $500,000, he said. The governor has not proposed extra money in the ADFG budget for that purpose. “It is not my intent to rob Peter to pay Paul to double up on meetings,” he said. “From the chair I’m sitting in, I’ve heard a lot of consternation and potential concern about doubling up on meetings next year.” Many of the public comments raised concerns about the plan. A number of fisheries trade groups, including the United Fishermen of Alaska, Kodiak Seiners Association, Southeast Alaska Gillnetters Association and North Pacific Fisheries Association, wrote to ask the board to delay the next meeting cycle by a year rather than double up. Multiple commenters said they thought the doubling up would leave the ADFG staff and citizen Advisory Committees without enough time to evaluate and comment on the proposals within the cycle. Several processors also opposed the move to stack meetings, including OBI, Icicle, Silver Bay Seafoods, and the Pacific Seafoods Processors Association. They cited similar concerns as the fishermen, including a lack of time for public process and the additional funding for ADFG. “With stakeholder input unnecessarily compromised and ADFG limited in its ability to present data, Alaskans would be left without the regulatory system that traditionally based decisions on broad public input and the best available science,” wrote Abby Frederick, Silver Bay Seafoods’ Director of Communications. A handful of commenters did support the stacking, including the Chignik Intertribal Coalition. Chignik has experienced near-complete sockeye run failures in two of the last three years and the community wants the board to address the run failure sooner rather than later, wrote Chignik Intertribal Coalition President George Anderson in a letter. If the board does not double up on meetings, Chignik’s meeting will not come up until the 2022-23 cycle. “In Chignik’s fishing history never has there been such a collapse of both its sockeye salmon runs,” Anderson wrote. “Chignik is in economic and cultural peril. Time is not on our side.” Several of the board members who initially supported doubling up changed their minds, in part because of the cost problem. Board member Gerard Godfrey said during the meeting that he didn’t want to hinge the decision on the Legislature possibly approving funds. “I’m not interested in playing that game myself,” he said. “I’m not interested in waiting a number of months to find out whether or not this is feasible. And the overarching (issue) is that this situation is nobody’s fault, but the most equitable way to deal with it is to not double up.” Several other members commented that they would change their vote for similar reasons and because of the strain on staff to prepare. Several others noted that the board does have an emergency process, where if a fishery has a legitimate emergency come up out of cycle, stakeholders can petition the board to deal with it sooner, as long it as it meets the criteria of being unforeseen and a threat to the fishery. The decision to delay the meetings originally set for 2021-22 passed unanimously, and dates for the upcoming meetings in 2022 are still to be determined. Elizabeth Earl can be reached at [email protected]

Act signed to aid young fishermen

After years of refinement and hearings in Congress, the Young Fishermen’s Development Act was finally signed into law on Jan. 5. The act lays out funding and a structure for workforce development and education programs for young commercial fishermen across the country. Rep. Don Young, the original sponsor of the House version of the bill, noted that young fishermen face more obstacles than in the past, including new barriers to entry, limited training opportunities and a global pandemic. The bill directs the National Sea Grant Office within the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to create a matching grant program specifically for training, education, outreach and technical assistance for young fishermen. Recipients would have to be collaborative state, Tribal, local, or regionally based networks or public-private partnerships, according to the bill. The grants won’t be able to be used for purchasing licenses, permits, quota or any other harvesting rights. “Our legislation is about supporting the livelihoods of fishing communities across the nation by making the next generation aware of the opportunities available in the commercial fishing industry,” Young said in a press release. “This is a tremendous victory, but my work on behalf of our fishing fleet is not done. The COVID-19 pandemic has devastated our fishermen, processors, and countless others who depend on a thriving seafood industry. Now that the 117th Congress has begun, I want our fishermen to know that I will continue fighting for a safe and prosperous future for this vital sector.” In 2016, Alaska’s average commercial fisherman was older than 50, and rural resident permit holdings had fallen by more than 30 percent. That movement away from locally owned fisheries and the aging of the fishing fleet drew concern from groups like Alaska Sea Grant and the Alaska Marine Conservation Network, prompting the groups to form committees on policy reform to help bring more young people into the fishery. High on their list of concerns was the cost of entering limited-entry fisheries like salmon or halibut, where permits or individual fishing quota, or IFQ, are expensive, in addition to boats and equipment. A report published by a group of fisheries policy researchers in 2017 provided a list of recommendations to help reverse these trends. The first three recommendations all had to do with finding nonmarket-based solutions to facilitate new entry into the fisheries, such as community trusts that could hold permits or establishing apprenticeship programs. The bill does allow the grants to be used for “mentoring, apprenticeships, or internships,” but the other uses are primarily education in topics like vessel and engine care, maintenance and repair, sustainable fishing practices, business practices and direct marketing. Grants are for up to three years and $200,000 each. The bill indicates appropriations to begin in fiscal year 2022. The bill’s signing was overshadowed by the chaos of the invasion of Capitol Hill on Jan. 6, but the act was hailed by the Alaska commercial fishing fleet as a step in the right direction to reverse the aging of the average fisherman in the state, known as “the graying of the fleet.” While commercial fishing crews remain relatively young compared to the overall population, permit holders and vessel operators are among the older demographic, and younger fishermen are not moving into the fleet as permit and quota holders to replace them. The Marine Fish Conservation Network, a national sustainable fishing advocacy group, praised the passage of the bill as a step in the right direction for young fishermen. Linda Behnken, executive director of the Alaska Longline Fishermen’s Association and co-chair of the Marine Fish Conservation Network’s Policy Council, said there is plenty of other work to do to help young fishermen, but the Young Fishermen’s Development Act is a win. “It’s a piece of what needs to be done, not all of it,” she said. “It’s not an end-all-be-all, but it is an important step.” Industry group the Fishing Communities Coalition — of which ALFA is one member — essentially wrote drafts for the act, Behnken said. Initially, there was interest in including help for fishermen seeking to buy into fisheries through quota or permits, but quickly found that there was little support for that among industry or in Congress. In the interest of moving the bill forward, the provisions were dropped. But training is an important need, too, she said. The grants will help organizations cover costs for trainings that may help aspiring fishermen work their way into the industry, such as workshops on regulations and vessel repair and maintenance, Behnken said. In fisheries, which are naturally subject to the forces of nature, the establishment of training programs and a sort of ladder to climb may help offer some stability, she said. As to helping with the finances of getting into the industry, Behnken said the industry is looking to sources outside the federal government to help. The Alaska Sustainable Fisheries Trust, a Sitka-based organization, runs an deckhand apprenticeship program to connect interested young fishermen with a small-boat skipper to introduce them to the industry. The program helps teach the apprentices how to approach the job and how to avoid certain pitfalls, such as negotiating a contract before getting aboard and how to negotiate all the gear required in Alaska’s commercial fisheries. The trust also runs a Local Fish Fund, which helps finance some of the cost of a down payment for quota, which is notoriously expensive. Since launching in 2019, the fund has helped provide $1.5 million in loans. Since the introduction of limited entry fisheries, permits have gradually been siphoned away from rural and local fishermen, impacting communities. Behnken said the goal of efforts like the Local Fish Fund is to help reverse some of that movement. “The escalating cost of entry has really marginalized rural communities, native communities—anybody with limited access to capital,” she said. The text of the act does not give a specific timeline for the development of the program or the first distribution of grants. Young’s office did not return a request for an interview. Elizabeth Earl can be reached at [email protected]

Two COVID-19 vaccines offer hope to beleaguered health care sector

Health care has been at the center of the limelight since this past March when the COVID-19 pandemic really began affecting Alaska. Gov. Mike Dunleavy preemptively issued emergency orders meant to preserve hospital capacity in the event of case surges, shutting down elective surgeries and outside visitors. For hospitals and health care companies, which often make the bulk of their profit on elective surgeries and outpatient procedures, that was a serious financial hit even as their staffing was slammed with new work and safety protocols. The daily case numbers dipped a bit to 152 on Dec. 21 for the lowest daily count since October. Hospital staff also began receiving the first doses of the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine. As of Dec. 20, 5,674 doses of the Pfizer vaccine had been administered, according to the Alaska Department of Health and Social Services. Early news of allergic reactions from a staff member in Juneau and several others who received the vaccine raised alarms and made national news. There had been 11 documented allergic reactions in the state so far, with eight at Bartlett Regional Hospital in Juneau, two at Providence Alaska, and one at Fairbanks Memorial Hospital. Two were identified as anaphylaxis, with one resulting in hospitalization for treatment. “Safety is a top priority, and these systems are closely monitored by the CDC,” said Alaska Chief Medical Officer Dr. Anne Zink. “Reporting any adverse reaction is extremely important so we can continue to ensure the safety of these vaccines. All providers are encouraged to report all adverse reactions to the VAERS system so we can continue be as transparent as possible.” The state began receiving doses of a second approved vaccine, produced by Moderna, on Dec. 21. Between the two vaccines, the state has enough to vaccinate 61,900 people, according to an announcement sent out Dec. 22. That does not include the second doses, which have to be administered several weeks after the first doses. While the Pfizer vaccine has presented a challenge for rural Alaskan communities because of the extremely cold storage temperatures required to transport it, the Moderna vaccine has been seen as a better option. It only has to be stored at -4 degrees Fahrenheit, a much more accessible temperature for rural communities, and can withstand being thawed for much longer, according to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. “The Moderna vaccine will help us reach more communities, especially those that have less access to cold storage,” said Tessa Walker Linderman, the DHSS co-lead of Alaska’s COVID-19 Vaccine Task Force. “Having both vaccines provides us more vaccine, and more flexibility.” The vaccines may be a path to helping the state’s economy get back on track, though doses will be limited for a while and administered according to the state’s distribution plan. First on that list are front-line health care workers and residents and staff of long-term care facilities. After that comes EMS and fire service personnel, community health aides or practitioners, and health care workers providing other essential services that cannot be postponed or delivered remotely. The Alaska State Hospital and Nursing Home Association said in a Dec. 15 statement that it was pleased long-term care home residents and staff are among the first to have access to vaccination. “The vaccine is a lifesaving turning point in the fight against COVID-19,” the organization said in its statement. “This is what we have been waiting for and we hope to protect as many people as possible.” Looking forward, health care is again projected to be the largest growth area for jobs in the state in total number of jobs, but primarily in the long term. Ironically, even as hospitals prepared for a surge of demand as the pandemic entered the state, the industry began to shed jobs, primarily in ambulatory surgery centers and other outpatient clinics because of mandated closures in the spring. However, the Alaska Department of Labor and Workforce Development estimates that those jobs may not be gone for too long. “Ambulatory care, which is mainly the offices of various practitioners, will take the brunt of the loss as people forego preventive care or delay procedures through 2020 and potentially longer,” the department said in an October analysis. “We don’t know how long that will last, but the industry is sure to rebound quickly once conditions improve. As a result, we project growth of 9.2 percent, or 1,947 jobs, by 2028.” In the long term, the Alaska Department of Labor and Workforce Development projected that the health care industry would grow by about 10.3 percent between 2018 and 2028, which translates to just more than 5,000 jobs. ^ Elizabeth Earl can be reached at [email protected]

Some bright spots for high-value salmon, halibut in 2021

Going into 2021, salmon fishermen have some unanswered questions and at least a few promising forecasts to look forward to. Following the trend of the last several years, the salmon forecast for the 2021 salmon season in Bristol Bay looks positive. The Alaska Department of Fish and Game is forecasting a total return of about 51 million sockeye salmon, with an inshore run of about 50 million. That’s about 6 percent better than the average for the last decade and 45 percent greater than the long-term average. If the forecast delivers, that would mean approximately 37.37 million sockeye available for commercial harvest, with about 1 million of those available for harvest in the South Peninsula fisheries and the rest in the various terminal fisheries around the Bay. For about the last two decades, Fish and Game’s forecasts for Bristol Bay have generally been conservative; the runs since 2001 have, on average, outperformed the forecasts by 11 percent, according to the 2021 forecast. The forecasts for various rivers in the region vary from Alagnak, which is forecast to be down 32 percent in 2021, to the Igushik, which is forecast to be up 13 percent. “Overforecasting returns to some rivers while underforecasting returns to other rivers means that the overall Bristol Bay forecast is often more accurate than the forecast to any individual river,” according to ADFG. Entering an odd numbered year might mean better luck for pink salmon returns as well. Historically, odd-numbered years deliver higher overall catches of pink salmon statewide. Southeast appears to be on that list as well, though with some caveats. ADFG estimates a return of approximately 28 million pinks, which is better than the average over all years but low for odd-year returns in the region. Salmon forecasts for Prince William Sound and Cook Inlet have not yet been published. Northern Southeast Regional Aquaculture Association is forecasting approximately 4.1 million chums to return in 2021, which would be significantly better than the realized return of 2.6 million chums in 2020. The association is also forecasting a return of approximately 4.4 million cohos, which would also be significantly greater than the 2020 return of about 2.7 million. For the Southern Southeast Regional Aquaculture Association, the predicted summer chum return is about 3 million; Douglas Island Pink and Chum is forecasting about 1 million to return, with about 611,000 of that available for common property harvest. 2020 proved a difficult year for many salmon harvesters, with underperforming forecasts in many regions and unpredictable markets leading to reduced prices. However, retail demand for wild sockeye stayed strong, according to seafood marketer TradeX, and low stocks due to underperforming fisheries may mean an increase in price due to constrained supply in 2021. Restaurant and food service outlet closures pushed down prices for farmed salmon and directed it more toward retail outlets, where it competed with wild salmon. Prices stabilized over subsequent months, but an increase in COVID-19 cases across the country this fall led to more restaurant and food service closures, putting more downward pressure on wild salmon prices, according to the Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute. Halibut outlook Stock numbers in the Pacific halibut fishery are overall still declining, but there are individual bright spots in some regions. The results from the 2020 fishery-independent setline survey showed a coast-wide decline of about 1 percent, the fourth year of declines, according to survey results presented to the International Pacific Halibut Commission. The trends individually varied from region to region, though, from an 8 percent decline in Region 2, which covers Southeast Alaska and British Columbia to a 1 percent increase in Region 3, which includes the Gulf of Alaska. Region 4 was not directly sampled in 2020 but projected to increase as well. The increase in Region 3 bucks a declining trend documented since about 2004. Pacific halibut catches and bycatch were down statewide in 2020, according to an analysis from the IPHC for the end of 2020. Total landings, including research, were down 6 percent from 2019, and non-directed discard mortality — also called bycatch — was down 23 percent. Recreational mortality was down 15 percent from 2019 as well. Unlike salmon, pollock and other seafood species that are exported, Pacific halibut is largely consumed domestically in the United States. That made harvesters in that fishery ineligible for tariff assistance when the federal administration offered some relief funds for fishermen affected by the ongoing trade conflict with China. However, halibut fishermen are eligible for pandemic-related aid, including in the latest round passed by Congress this week. The North Pacific Fishery Management council recommended a set of management measures depending on the final catch limits for the charter fishery in the Gulf of Alaska and Southeast Alaska as well. For the Gulf of Alaska, officially known as Area 3A, allocations generally include a daily limit of two halibut, with no annual limit per charter angler, Wednesday closures, one trip per charter vessel per day and one trip per permit per day. In Southeast Alaska, officially known as Area 2C, the management measures include a one-fish daily bag limit and a reverse slot limit, with sizes dependent on the adjusted catch limit. The measures also apply a 35 percent reduction in projected removals called a COVID Impact Buffer, as the pandemic has heavily affected the charter industry in Southeast in 2020. The IPHC meets in January to set catch limits for 2021. The meeting will be held online starting Jan. 25. ^ Elizabeth Earl can be reached at [email protected]

Year in Review: Cook Inlet closure ends 2020 as top fisheries story

Even a normal year in Alaska’s fisheries can be full of anticipation, but this year’s pandemic, management snarls and underwhelming salmon returns threw extra knots into the nets for commercial fishermen. Late this year, after a record-breakingly poor season, Cook Inlet commercial fishermen got an extra punch in the gut in the form of a complete closure in the federal waters of the inlet. The North Pacific Fishery Management’ Council’s decision drew outcry from hundreds of commercial fishermen, both about the actual content of the decision and the process in which it was introduced. The closure was the result of four alternatives presented to develop a fishery management plan, or FMP, after a years-long process resulting from a lawsuit brought by the United Cook Inlet Drift Association. In 2016, the U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled the council had to develop an FMP for salmon fishing in the federal waters of the Inlet rather than deferring to the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, as it had been doing. After several years of stakeholder meetings and expert reports to the council, the members were presented with four options, including an option introduced by the state for completely closing the EEZ. The decision, which would block commercial salmon fishing in the entire EEZ of Cook Inlet — where estimates say about 20 to 25 percent of the area’s annual commercial salmon harvest is taken —is not final yet. The federal rulemaking process requires approval by the U.S. Secretary of Commerce and could take about a year. If the closure goes forward, stakeholders say it could completely kill the commercial fishery in Cook Inlet. Members of the council said at the December meeting they regretted having to make the decision, but were left with little choice after representatives of Fish and Game Commissioner Doug Vincent-Lang’s office said the state would not accept conditions of co-management of salmon in the Inlet. In addition to fishermen and trade groups, the Alaska congressional delegation has called the decision unfortunate. The Kenai Peninsula legislative delegation, including Sen. Peter Micciche, R-Soldotna, and Reps. Ben Carpenter, R-Nikiski, and Sarah Vance, R-Homer, spoke against the process and the decision to close the area. No. 2: Bristol Bay a bright spot among salmon harvests This year, the North Pacific failed to deliver for a lot of salmon fishermen. Copper River’s sockeye run, usually a high-value early fishery, was a complete flop. Managers had to close the fishery completely after several weak openers, leaving fishermen in the region with empty nets. To the west, sockeye runs started similarly slowly in Upper Cook Inlet and stalled completely when poor king salmon returns led to a complete closure for East Side setnets and restrictions for drift gillnets in mid-July. Commercial fishermen gnashed their teeth at the end of the season when the Kenai River exceeded the upper end of its sustainable escapement goal by more than 500,000 sockeye, according to ADFG sonar counts. Southeast posted poor returns in both chum and pinks, and atop that, pink prices were dismal. Bristol Bay and Kodiak were the only regions to deliver reasonably well for salmon, with Bristol Bay posting a total catch of about 39.2 million salmon, only slightly behind last year’s total. Kodiak posted a high pink salmon harvest, with about 21.2 million harvested. 3. USDA provides $50M in tariff relief Almost immediately after President Donald Trump took office in 2017, his administration announced tariffs on goods exchanged with China. In retaliation, the Chinese government instituted tariffs of its own on American products, including seafood. That spelled trouble for Alaska’s seafood industry, which relies on China as a major trade partner. The tariffs weakened the market for Alaska’s seafood in Asia, leaving it already vulnerable to the economic havoc wrought by the coronavirus pandemic in 2020. In September, the U.S. Department of Agriculture announced $50 million in tariff relief for affected fishermen in fisheries ranging from Atka mackerel and geoduck to Pacific cod and salmon. Notably, though, the relief excluded Pacific halibut and sea cucumber harvesters. Though halibut is largely solid domestically, sea cucumber fishermen were affected directly by the tariffs. The money was only available to harvesters, and is restricted only to effects linked to the tariffs. For effects of the pandemic, fishermen were directed to the CARES Act. The aid was capped at $250,000 per person and was open until Dec. 14. Total aid to individuals is based on pounds, with the price depending on the species. 4. Emergency declarations sought for multiple fisheries While some fishermen had bad years, particularly in the salmon fishery, none had it as bad as Chignik. With dismal sockeye returns for the third year in a row, the Chignik commercial fishery didn’t open this year, and escapement still came in less than the goals. The community has been waiting for federal aid from its last disaster, the 2018 season, and just heard back in February with $10.3 million from the U.S. Department of Commerce. Chignik may not be the only fishery looking for help with its disaster in the 2020 season. The Cordova City Council passed resolutions in August asking for federal disaster declarations for the 2018 Copper River king and sockeye runs and for the 2020 sockeye, chum, and king runs in the region. The year started off on a sour note for Gulf of Alaska Pacific cod fishermen as well, with a complete closure to low numbers of available fish. The North Pacific Fishery Management Council announced the 2020 season closure late in 2019, the first time the fishery had been completely closed. Biologists link the decline in the stock to warm ocean temperatures dating back to the “the Blob,” an abnormally warm mass of water in the central Gulf of Alaska that has had far-reaching effects on fish stock dynamics. The cod fishery also requested a disaster declaration in 2018 and received an allocation of about $24.4 million alongside the allocation for Chignik in February 2020. The disbursement programs for both fisheries are being managed by the Pacific States Marine Commission

2020 Year in Review: Pandemic upends Alaskan economy

There is only one top story for 2020, but the tentacles of the COVID-19 virus have proven so far-reaching that it cannot be summed up with a single headline, despite the countless internet memes attempting to do so. The 2020 Year in Review looks back at the top 10 stories as the pandemic touched every reach of Alaska. 1. Job losses, shutdowns return Alaska to recession COVID-19 made its presence felt across Alaska’s economy even well before it actually reached the many corners of the state. The state economy started the year as it ended 2019; with incremental growth it appeared to be on a long, slow journey to recovery following three-plus years of recession. According to state Labor Department figures, Alaska had job growth of 0.4 percent and 0.3 percent in January and February, respectively, compared to 2019. However, the script flipped in March when — coinciding with “hunker down” orders first by the Municipality of Anchorage and then the State of Alaska — the state lost approximately 1,000 jobs, or about 0.3 percent of its workforce. Congress passed the $2.2 trillion CARES Act in late March, which sent most Americans checks of up to $1,200, boosted unemployment payments by up to $600 per week and directed roughly $1.5 billion to Alaska in anticipation of the challenges ahead. The lawmakers guessed right. The losses accelerated rapidly in April as business and travel restrictions persisted, cruise sailings were canceled, oil prices fell to near zero and it became clear the pandemic would not simply be a weeks-long inconvenience. At the typical time Alaska starts adding thousands of seasonal fishing and tourism industry jobs, the state instead lost nearly 40,000 jobs compared to March and approximately 44,000 jobs year-over-year. As of October, Alaska was still down nearly 29,000 jobs year-over-year, according to the Labor Department, with the most severe impacts to the oil and gas and hospitality sectors — some of the largest and most impactful industries in the state. The oil and gas industry directly employed about 6,800 workers in October, which was down more than 30 percent from a year prior. The hospitality sector was down 9,600 jobs, or about 27 percent of its workforce in October. Acting Anchorage Mayor Austin Quinn-Davidson ordered dine-in service and restaurants and bars closed in December along with other restrictions on gatherings in an attempt to respond to increasing COVID-19 case counts and limited hospital capacity, so it remains to be seen exactly what added impact the latest surge in cases will have on Anchorage and the state economy as a whole. — Elwood Brehmer No. 2 Health care system responds The pandemic has put the spotlight on Alaska’s health care industry, for better or for worse, as the state tries to control outbreaks. With its small population, Alaska has a tightly limited number of available hospital beds and staff for in-patients care, particularly those in intensive care units. That’s especially true when some of those ICU patients are highly contagious and staff has to be extra careful going in and out of care wards for COVID-19 patients. Though the disease was slow to come to Alaska, it has made up for lost time, surging in the summer and again in the late fall, with cases topping 40,000 in December with 175 resident deaths and nearly 900 hospitalizations. Local officials responded quickly, with Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s emergency declaration limiting elective surgeries and closing down hospitals to most of the public. That put a financial strain on hospitals, which make most of their cash flow from elective and outpatient surgeries, but freed up more staff and beds for COVID-19 patients. Later, when hospitals reopened for those procedures, they required negative tests for all patients. The University of Alaska Anchorage graduated some nursing students a little ahead of schedule in April, allowing them to move directly into the workforce to help during the pandemic response. The students were largely only a few hours away from receiving their diplomas and licenses, and with approval from the Board of Nursing, they were able to get temporary licensure and jump immediately into the workforce. But even with those relatively lower case counts and few extra workers, the strain on health care staff has been difficult since March. Health care workers have reported some burnout from wearing PPE for long shifts, extra time to take pandemic precautions, and the high level of stress. As community spread has increased, too, the number of infected health care workers has increased, putting strain on their healthy coworkers, who have to fill in those shifts because there’s no one else to fill the gap. — Elizabeth Earl 3. Oil industry rides rollercoaster Not likely a coincidence, the price of Alaska North Slope crude started the year similarly to the Alaska economy, on a very gradual increase. But the price for the state’s oil began falling sooner as the consequences from Chinese economic restrictions and a subsequent price war between Saudi Arabia and Russia were first reflected in February, when the average price for Alaska oil fell $11 per barrel from January. The decline accelerated in March when the price averaged $33 per barrel, or just about half of what it was in January. ConocoPhillips, Alaska’s largest producer, responded by announcing a cut of about $200 million from its budget for North Slope projects in mid-March. Oil Search, which is developing the large Pikka Unit prospect, similarly decided to cut its 2020 Alaska spending by about $70 million. Oil Search later announced it would push back the timeline for first oil from the Pikka Unit from late 2022 to 2025 as part of a revised design for the several billion-dollar development. The situation turned unprecedented in late April when the markets for domestic oil briefly went negative at the height of pandemic-induced restrictions. ConocoPhillips told its North Slope drilling contractor, Doyon Drilling, to turn off all of the rigs working in ConocoPhillips’ fields even before oil prices hit rock bottom and responded to their primary product being “worthless” for a time by curtailing North Slope production by approximately 100,000 barrels per day in late May and June. The company resumed normal operations — sans drilling — on the Slope in July after oil prices returned to and stabilized in the $40 per barrel range. Prices have since risen to about $50 in recent weeks on the hopes that COVID-19 vaccines will help push global demand significantly higher once again. ConocoPhillips also announced it would gradually restart its drilling program in late December. North Slope production bottomed out in June with an average daily throughput in the Trans-Alaska Pipeline System of about 393,000 barrels, but jumped to average 477,000 barrels per day in August — the most in years for that month. Industry experts said the brief production boost, which has since subsided, was likely due to a slight buildup in reservoir pressure from ConocoPhillips’ curtailment as well as the deferment of numerous small mechanical field projects that historically reduce summer oil production on the Slope. — Elwood Brehmer 4. Tourism bust 2020 was the year that wasn’t for what had been the second largest private employment sector in the state after roughly a decade of growth. More than 1.3 million visitors who were scheduled to visit Alaska via cruise ship this year didn’t as all but a couple small vessel voyages to the state were canceled. And while tallies on visitors using other modes of travel are harder to quickly collate, it is clear that the prohibition of general border crossings into and out of Canada and a broad reticence to air travel resulted in a fraction of the roughly 2.3 million travelers expected in Alaska this year actually showing up. Leisure and hospitality employment peaked at more than 44,000 jobs in July 2019 after years of increasing visitor numbers but this year the industry’s employment peaked in February and was at just 28,000 jobs in July, according to the state Labor Department. The situation has been worse in Southeast, where the lack of cruise ships cut the industry’s workforce nearly in half. Leisure and hospitality businesses in the region employed approximately 2,400 workers in October, compared to about 4,100 a year ago. — Elwood Brehmer No. 5: Markets and mitigation take bite out of seafood When the pandemic first made headlines across the country in February, commercial fishermen didn’t imagine that they’d be digging into one of the strangest seasons in recent memory. Processors across the state rushed to make plans to get their thousands of workers, often foreign, to tightly packed plants in rural communities. Vessel owners and captains wrung their hands about how to get crewmen into the state or on board, who should pay for quarantine and how to safely deliver fish to dock every period. Prior to the season in Bristol Bay, some communities and members of the fleet called for a closure of the season to prevent COVID-19 from reaching the remote communities around the bay and their limited health care system capacities. However, the fleet and processors rushed to put together mitigation plans. As the season progressed, it seemed to work; outbreaks at processing plants were identified and contained, and though cases were reported across the region during the season, the health care system was never overrun. And then, after they’d gone through the headache and expense of how to operate safely in a pandemic, fishermen were left with uncertain international markets. Seafood prices tumbled, and the estimated value for the statewide salmon harvest came in at $295.2 million, 56 percent less than the 2019 value and the lowest annual value since 2006 after adjusting for inflation. Heading into the 2021 season, industry leaders see reduced inventory as an encouraging sign for prices. Demand for Alaska seafood at grocery stores has remained high, as buyers have still been looking for seafood but aren’t buying it from restaurants in 2020. — Elizabeth Earl No. 6: Schools go virtual with mixed results One of the most widespread effects of the pandemic this year has been for K-12 education. When many students and teachers said farewell before spring break in March, they had no idea they wouldn’t see each other again until at least August. Dunleavy declared a state of emergency in mid-March, closing K-12 schools across the state as a precaution and forcing many students and teachers into full remote classes for the first time. From the beginning, the decision has been controversial. For one, it caught many parents on a back foot, with no access to affordable child care and no way to work without someone to watch their children. At the same time, virtual learning — especially for very young students, like those in kindergarten through fifth grade — was not very common before this spring. Many parents, including those in Alaska, are not happy with results as they juggle work, monitoring their children’s schooling, and other responsibilities. School districts in Anchorage, Fairbanks, the Mat-Su Valley, and the Kenai Peninsula all made plans to go back to school in person this fall, depending on the rates of virus transmission in various communities, including sports. Almost immediately, schools began having to quarantine, with some connected to youth sports and others due to community spread. Anchorage pushed back its timeline for bringing all students back in person several times, keeping all students online, while the Kenai Peninsula divided its schools into regions and closed or opened them based on regional community spread. Mat-Su closed and opened some individual schools as cases warranted, but the result was similar: parents were unhappy and felt students weren’t keeping up with the education they would get in person. With the holidays possibly leading to case increases as people gather, school districts are cautious about bringing students back in person, even as parents push harder for it as students approach a full year without regular in-person schooling in many regions of the state. — Elizabeth Earl 7. Airlines grounded The travel restrictions imposed by the state and local governments in spring quickly led to the — ultimately temporary — demise of Ravn Alaska, the largest passenger airline in the state. State officials sharply restricted in-state travel in late March and by April 5 Ravn leaders had suspended operations and filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection. Ravn executives said the airline lost 90 percent of its revenue nearly immediately after travel was disrupted by the pandemic. The decision to ground Ravn’s 72-plane fleet also meant its approximately 1,300 employees were immediately out of work as well. The year was better at Alaska’s namesake airline at least for the fact that they kept flying, but Alaska Airlines was forced to cut its workforce significantly to match the drop in air travel. Despite the fact that the pandemic did not tangibly take hold in much of the U.S. until mid-March, Alaska reported a $232 million loss in the first quarter and a cash burn rate of up to $400 million per month in the second quarter as the ostensive suspension of air travel continued. Alaska attempted to backfill some of the void left by the sudden grounding of Ravn by starting its seasonal service to Southwest Alaska in mid-May, roughly a month ahead of normal. Alaska also began year-round jet service to Dillingham and King salmon in October with smaller planes from regional sister carrier Horizon Air before. While it added some service in Alaska, as of September the airline had cut its workforce through voluntary leave and retirement packages and direct layoffs by more than 6,100 employees, or nearly 30 percent. A new Ravn ownership group has since restarted scaled-back service to the Aleutians and several Southcentral communities. As of mid-November the airline had hired back more than 300 employees, according to a statement from Ravn. Ravn Alaska was sold for $9.5 million in August following a bankruptcy auction to a new management team led by former commercial pilots and backed by California investor and entrepreneur Josh Jones. — Elwood Brehmer 8. CARES Act funds distributed, but not without difficulty The State of Alaska received about $1.5 billion in federal aid to mitigate the impact of the pandemic after Congress quickly passed the $2.2 trillion CARES Act in late March, but getting the money allocated and dispersed via multiple levels of government proved to be a slower process. State lawmakers who’d adjourned from the spring session because of the pandemic had the Legislative Budget and Audit Committee largely approve Dunleavy’s plan for the CARES Act money in their stead during a mid-May meeting. The Budget and Audit approval sparked a lawsuit from former University of Alaska regent and public interest advocate Eric Forrer, in which he and attorney Joe Geldhof argued the full Legislature needed to convene and appropriate the money. Legislators ultimately gathered in Juneau and approved the administration’s plan May 19, just six days after the suit was filed in state court. Rollout of AK CARES, the state’s primary small business aid program, was slower than anticipated as hang-ups in the application and review process delayed disbursements. State Commerce Department officials initially selected Anchorage-based Credit Union 1 in May to administer $290 million in grants of up to $100,000 each for small businesses in the state. However, the small community lender was soon overwhelmed with grant applications and when the state revised the program to simplify requirements for the grants in early August, CU1 had approved 511 applications totaling about $20 million from more than 2,500 applications with requests totaling $114 million. Commerce Department officials at the time also opened a new AK CARES application website and recruited additional administrative support from organizations statewide. — Elwood Brehmer 9. Legislature adjourns early The then-young pandemic gave lawmakers sufficient reason to pass a largely status quo budget and suspend the session March 29 without addressing any of the state’s structural budget imbalances. Many legislators started the session with relative optimism that some long-sought compromises could be reached on major budget issues, taxes and the Permanent Fund dividend with the prospect of running out of savings being a tangible threat and no longer an existential worry. That changed quickly in March when it became clear large gatherings were a hindrance to good public health. The Legislature formally adjourned May 20 following the harried approval of Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s plan to spend the state’s CARES Act money. Dunleavy vetoed $210 million from the budget in April but lawmakers did not attempt to override his vetoes when they briefly met in May. The early exit from Juneau meant the big issues remained unresolved and nearly $1 billion more is needed from the Constitutional Budget Reserve to fill the 2021 fiscal year deficit. The CBR is expected to hold $586 million at the start of fiscal year 2022, when the state is projected to have a deficit of more than $2 billion, according to the Legislative Finance Division. When legislative leaders declined to make a second round of PFD payments despite Dunleavy’s urging, the governor instead opted to start dispersing the $992 checks on July 1, the start of the state fiscal year and the first day the administration could access the money. The Legislature also did not vote on any of the board and commissions appointments Dunleavy made earlier this year, most notably the appointments of Abe Williams and McKenzie Mitchell to the Board of Fisheries. Dunleavy announced the new Board of Fisheries selections, along John Jensen’s reappointment April 1, after lawmakers had left Juneau. Williams is a Bristol Bay commercial fishermen and also the regional affairs director for the Pebble Partnership and as such his appointment has drawn intense scrutiny. Kodiak Rep. Louise Stutes, a vocal opponent of the Williams pick, has said that if the appointments are not confirmed by the time the next Legislature meets in mid-January — a near certainty at this point — the process starts over. — Elwood Brehmer 10. Light at the end of the tunnel One of the bumpiest trips around the sun in recent history seemed to be smoothing Dec. 15 as the first doses of COVID-19 vaccines were distributed to healthcare workers in the state. The preventative treatments came many months ahead of even the most optimistic projections made at the start of the pandemic and arrived as the state was in the middle of its most severe rise in cases of the virus. News of the impending vaccinations boosted energy and financial markets in the weeks prior. Alaska oil hit $50 per barrel Dec. 10 for the first time since February and the Permanent Fund had recovered from first-half turmoil to exceed $72 billion in value for the first time by early December. In mid-November ConocoPhillips Alaska leaders announced the company would resume North Slope drilling operations by the end of the year after laying down all of its rigs in April in response to health concerns for workers at remote camps and collapsed oil prices. — Elwood Brehmer

North Pacific council votes to close Cook Inlet federal waters to salmon

Commercial fishing in Upper Cook Inlet is facing a dismal future after the North Pacific Fishery Management Council moved to close a major swath of the central inlet this week. The council moved to enact Alternative 4 of a proposed Fishery Management Plan for Cook Inlet, closing the Exclusive Economic Zone, or EEZ, in that area. Fishermen would still be able to operate in state waters, including the shoreline and up to three nautical miles offshore, but the EEZ would be closed to all gear types. According to council analysis, about 20 percent of the total salmon caught in Cook Inlet come from that area, and a little less than half of the total drift fleet salmon catch. The proposed FMP still has to be approved by the U.S. Secretary of Commerce, who oversees the National Marine Fisheries Service, but the council members say their hands are essentially tied because the state says it won’t participate in co-management of the fishery. The council members were under a deadline to pass something by the end of the year. In 2012, the council passed an amendment to the Cook Inlet fishery management plan, or FMP, that officially delegated management to the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. But the United Cook Inlet Drift Association was not happy with state management, saying the state has failed to manage for maximum sustained yield to the commercial fishery and sued to seek federal oversight over the EEZ in the Inlet again. In 2015, the 9th Circuit Court agreed with UCIDA, and the council took up the issue of the Cook Inlet FMP again. Over the next four years, a stakeholder group and representatives from the council and the state participated in an FMP development process with the council members, hashing out potential ways to satisfy the court order to develop an FMP. The council finally arrived at four alternatives by the end of the October meeting: provide no management, cooperative state and federal management, complete federal management, or close the EEZ entirely. The fourth option, to close the EEZ, was not in play as a separate alternative until the end of the October meeting. After it came out as an option, hundreds of fishermen vocally objected, flooding the council with comments opposing the alternative. The majority of the public commenters and industry stakeholders preferred Alternative 2, which would have provided cooperative state and federal management. “We are intentionally being managed out of business, but we’re unable to defend ourselves against the agenda of our powerful state leaders, their appointed Board of Fish members, their Department of Fish and Game, and the powerful special interest groups that influence them,” said Matt Pancratz, a commercial drifter and resident of Nikolaevsk, a small Russian Old Believer village on the lower Kenai Peninsula. “We feel betrayed and powerless.” UCIDA, the original plaintiffs in the lawsuit that resulted in the FMP rewrite process, didn’t like any of the options provided. David Martin, the president of the association, told the council the group believes none of the alternatives provided would satisfy the court’s order and the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act. The missing piece hinges on Magnuson-Steven Act language about managing harvest of fish species “throughout their range.” UCIDA has argued that this language, in combination with the court’s decision, means the council should have authority to oversee state escapement goals and salmon management. Erik Huebsch, one of UCIDA’s vice presidents, blamed the state administration for failing to manage salmon in the Inlet. “What you all need to realize is that the state of Alaska’s management system for salmon is totally corrupted, and that it has been for quite some time,” Huebsch said. “There is no other way to describe it. Some of you on the council have witnessed that firsthand. The late introduction of Alternative 4 is a punitive action by the state because their corrupt behavior is being exposed, and they want to continue their malpractice with impunity.” Salmon management has largely been deferred to the state, in part because the species is managed by escapement goals in the rivers, which are in state jurisdiction. That’s true of Cook Inlet as well, where the predominant species in the commercial fishery — particularly in the upper Inlet — is salmon. ADFG manages salmon returns to a variety of rivers and oversees subsistence, sport, commercial, and personal use fisheries throughout the basin. That’s gotten more complicated over the past few decades as the populations of Anchorage, the Kenai Peninsula, and the Mat-Su Valley have grown, personal-use fisheries have been established, and sportfisheries have become major economic drivers for tourism. During the council FMP process, ADFG said the collaborative process provided under Alternative 2 would be too costly and have no benefit to the state. ADFG Deputy Commissioner Rachel Baker told the council that the department would not agree to work together on management in that structure. “The conditions required under Alternative 2 that we talked about for delegated management authority to the state … those conditions are unacceptable in terms of our ability to participate in that process, and particularly the federal oversight and review process, could actually result in withdrawn state delegation authority,” she said. “That’s very concerning to me on one level and the additional cost of participating in the other aspects under Alternative 2 … they don’t provide any benefit to state management. If you have to make decisions with limited resources, in that aspect, that was what I meant by unwilling to accept the conditions required under Alternative 2.” The only commenter who supported Alternative 4 was the Kenai River Sportfishing Association. The alternative to close the EEZ makes the most sense with the options before the council, given that the federal government is not easily able to respond to in-season changes, the group said in its comments. The move to close the fishery could potentially push more fish to inriver users. But that’s one of the concerns the commercial fishermen have; if too many salmon, particularly sockeye, escape into the river past sportfishermen, the fishermen say it will overtip the biological carrying capacity on the river and cause a crash in the stock. ADFG biologists make recommendations to the Board of Fisheries to set escapement goals based on biological assessments and on harvest patterns, and the board makes final allocation decisions that include altering the goals. Several of the council members expressed reservations about voting to close the EEZ, acknowledging the negative impact on the commercial fishery and the communities. In particular, the cities of Kenai, Seward, and Homer all collect revenue from their commercial fisheries landing taxes. Council member Andy Mezirow, who lives in Seward, noted that this was a difficult decision, particularly for younger fishermen in Cook Inlet. “They put their faith in this council process, participated like professionals in the Salmon FMP committee, and if we adopt Alternative 4, this process has failed to serve them,” Mezirow said. “I’m concerned about the message we are sending these and other bright young fishermen who take the time and effort to participate. And finally, I’m concerned about what it means to make a decision that might result in the end of a fishery in my backyard that’s been prosecuted for over a hundred years.” However, he said the state’s argument and the council’s timeline pushed the vote, and said he hoped there could be an additional process outside the council to alleviate some of the negative impact to the fishery. Many Cook Inlet commercial fishermen were frustrated and angered at the decision. In a statement issued Monday night, UCIDA pointed to political ties between ADFG, Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s administration, and the Kenai River Sportfishing Association as potential causes for the vote, saying, “The fix was in.” The Alaska Salmon Alliance, an industry group representing processors in Cook Inlet, expressed disappointment in a statement issued Dec. 8, pointing to Fish and Game Commissioner Doug Vincent-Lang’s office as a source for the wrench in the FMP development process. There will likely be more challenges due to the state’s decision, the organization said. “Meanwhile, the State of Alaska’s take-it-or-leave-it attitude has frightening ramifications for other Alaskan fisheries,” the group said in its statement. “The state and the federal government have numerous cooperative agreements for managing many other fisheries around the state and this new policy by the Dunleavy administration can affect all of those.” The council ultimately voted to support closing the EEZ 10-0, with NMFS Regional Director Dr. James Balsiger abstaining. The fishery will likely not be closed for the upcoming 2021 season, as the FMP still has to make its way through the federal rulemaking process. Elizabeth Earl can be reached at [email protected]

Crab harvests set: Kings still in decline, snow and Tanner see bump

This year has brought little good news for commercial fisheries, but the commercial crab fishermen in the Bering Sea are getting some in the form of some increased catch limits. The Alaska Department of Fish and Game released its 2020-21 total allowable catch, or TAC, limits for Bering Sea snow and bairdi Tanner crab, and Bristol Bay red king crab on Oct. 1. While the red king crab TAC slid downward again in the continuation of a long-term decline, the snow crab TAC ticked up significantly. A portion of the bairdi crab fishery will also be open again after being closed for the 2019-20 season. Commercial fishermen will be allowed to harvest a total of 45 million pounds of snow crab from the Bering Sea waters this year, with 4.5 million of that set aside for Community Development Quota groups and the rest for individual fishing quota, or IFQ, holders. That’s about 34 percent larger than the limit last season, which was also an increase over the previous year. Bering Sea Crabbers Association Executive Director Jamie Goen said that’s good news for the fleet. However, members of the fleet also think that TAC could have been a lot higher had the National Marine Fisheries Service been able to conduct its regular surveys. The federal surveys were canceled this year due to concerns about spreading COVID-19, and so the fishery managers weren’t able to get as much data as usual to make their limit decisions. When faced with a lack of information, fishery managers generally default to conservative management. Goen said this emphasizes the importance of data to the fisheries. “We think there is a 30-year high of (snow) crab out there,” she said. “We’re pleased with this year’s TACs… to me, (this year) stresses the importance of these surveys.” The Western Bering Sea bairdi crab fishery availability is good news, too. Last year, low survey numbers for mature female biomass in the fishery triggered a closure, despite fishermen saying they were seeing plenty of crab. The Board of Fisheries tweaked the management plan for bairdi, also known as Tanner crab, in the Bering Sea earlier this year, and the fishery is set to open in the Western district with a quota of about 2.4 million pounds, with 234,800 of those set aside for CDQ groups. The fishery in the Eastern district of the Bering Sea will remain closed this season, as will the St. Matthew Island section blue king crab fishery. The Board of Fisheries met just before the pandemic began in March and adjusted the management plan for the bairdi crab fishery to address the issue with the fishery triggers. “It was a great process,” Goen said. “They figured out how to create more stability in our fishery.” That TAC is still significantly lower than some of the higher limits between 2014-18, according to a report from the National Marine Fisheries Service to the North Pacific Fishery Management Council. NMFS noted that the mature male biomass in the Bering Sea bairdi fishery is still declining, and is “approaching the very low levels seen in the mid-1990s to early 2000s.” Discard mortality is significant in both the bairdi and snow crab fisheries in the Bering Sea. According to reports provided to the North Pacific Fishery Management Council for its Oct. 2 meeting, the most recent recorded discard mortality in the Bering Sea snow crab fishery was 33 percent of the total retained catch, the highest fraction on record. There wasn’t any bycatch of bairdi crab in the directed fishery last year because it was closed, but significant amounts of bairdi are regularly caught as bycatch in the snow crab, groundfish, and Bristol Bay red king crab fisheries. Bristol Bay red king crab harvests remain in decline. The TAC for the Bristol Bay red king crab fishery is set at approximately 2.6 million pounds, down about 1 million pounds from last year’s TAC of 3.7 million pounds. The fishery has been consistently seeing low recruitment, with mature biomass trending downward since 2009, though the 2020 biomass estimates are slightly higher than last year, according to a report provided to the NPFMC from Fish and Game biologists. The exact reason for the long-term decline isn’t certain, but it’s unlikely to bounce back at this rate to the highs seen in the 1970s. “Due to lack of recruitment, mature and legal crab should continue to decline next year,” the report states. “Current crab abundance is still low relative to the late 1970s, and without favorable environmental conditions, recovery to the high levels of the late 1970s is unlikely.” Goen said this isn’t surprising to the fleet, and many of the boats that participate in the red king crab fishery also participate in the snow crab and tanner crab fisheries. The Bering Sea Crabbers Association represents about 70 percent of the crabbers in the region. The crab fisheries are set to open on Oct. 15. What remains to be seen is how the vessels and processors manage the fishery under COVID-19 mitigation protocols. Commercial fishermen and processors all over the state scrambled in March to put together mitigation plans for the virus, looking for ways to control it in the normally cramped conditions aboard vessels and in processing plants. A number of processing plants around the state reported outbreaks among workers over the summer, but the number of cases tapered off over the summer. In Bristol Bay, coordinated response from the fleet and processors led to control of the pandemic and prevention of spread to the surrounding villages. Goen said COVID-19 mitigation is at the forefront of crabbers’ minds as they get ready to head out on the water. Some have had a head start at mitigation from tendering during the salmon season, as have the processors, but there are still issues to work out. Staffing has been a major issue for processors this year, for example. Elizabeth Earl can be reached at [email protected]

Elders & Youth focused on language for virtual convention

In the days preceding the annual Alaska Federation of Natives conference in Anchorage, the First Alaskans Institute brings together teenagers, elders, and everyone in between for the Elders and Youth Conference. But like so many things this year, the usual attendees will have to be together while apart. The First Alaskans Institute is preparing for its first entirely virtual Elders and Youth Conference, set to begin on Oct. 11. The event will be livestreamed on firstalaskans.org as well as broadcast statewide on GCI’s channels 1 and 907, on 360 North, and ARCS. FAI isn’t providing any broad support to elders who may need help with technology to go online and participate, but may do so on a case-by-case basis, said Karla Gatgyedm Hana’ax Booth, the Indigenous Leadership Continuum Director for FAI. Throughout the conference, they’re also encouraging people to get up and move around, as they’ll be in front of a screen this year. The 37th annual conference will also be entirely free. Usually, attendees are required to register, but with the combination of online and broadcast elements this year, the institute decided to make the event free. Booth said the sponsors helped make that possible this year. “I feel like it wasn’t that hard to reimagine, because we just knew that we had to have this very important statewide event,” she said. “It had to happen, no matter what. We wanted to make sure we were being good relatives to our statewide community and provide something that could lift all of our spirits up in this time of COVID. I don’t think we ever had a doubt that we would host something, but I think the real challenge was figuring out what the format is going to be.” First Alaskans Institute announced the plan to go entirely virtual with the conference and the annual Smokehouse Gala back in July. Since then, the organizers have been reworking plans for how to take the events virtual, which will enable vulnerable people to stay home and prevent the spread of disease from a major event back to dispersed communities. The conference usually takes place in Anchorage, which is also the single largest city in the state and the center of the state’s COVID-19 pandemic. The Elders and Youth Conference always starts with an opening ceremony called the Warming of the Hands, and that won’t change, Booth said. Sunday Oct. 11 will run from 1-5 p.m., and the following days from Oct. 12-14 will run from 8:30-5 p.m. Oct. 12 also happens to be Indigenous Peoples Day, and the events of the conference will line up with that, including language workshops. “(On Monday) we’re going to have our ‘Living and Loving Our Cultures’ workshops, focused on language learning,” she said. “(We’ll be) adding extra time to that session as well, just to celebrate our languages even more, to allow people to really get into learning and practicing, and hopefully they’ll continue that learning after the conference, too.” Some things will look a little different. The Elder Keynote speaker — Dr. Rev. Traditional Chief Trimble Gilbert of Arctic Village — will pre-record his message and make it available on Monday Oct. 12, Booth said. Gilbert is a tribal leader, Episcopal priest, Native knowledge and culture bearer and Gwich’in teacher, among other roles. The youth keynote speaker, Kiley Kanats Burton of Cordova, will follow suit on Tuesday Oct. 13. Instead of the regular dance group performances, First Alaskans Institute will air a compilation of the best Chin’an dance group performances over the past decade on Oct. 12 at 6 p.m., Booth said. Each day will begin with optional dawn prayers and well-wishes, which were requested by a community member last year and will continue this year. Workshops will pack the day, as they usually do, including listening circles, regional gatherings, and crafting workshops. For those who pre-registered before Sept. 24, the FAI staff have been mailing out some arts kits, Booth said. There are about 14 workshops to choose from, seven of which require kits. “(Some workshops are) cottonwood carving, cedar basket weaving, canvas rifle case sewing, salmon skin pouch sewing and embroidery, cedar bracelet making, acrylic painting, and COVID-19 mask sewing,” she said. “Some of our workshops that don’t require any kits.” The theme for this year’s conference is “Asirqamek Aprucilutna” in Sugt’sun or “Asisqamek Aprut’liluta” in Alutiiq, both of which mean “We are making a good path.” Language preservation continues to be one of the major goals in the conference, Booth said, the Alaska Native Preservation and Advisory Council appointed by the governor will hold a listening sessions during the conference as well. One of the events many people look forward to are the men’s, women’s, and LGBTQIA+ houses, she said. “They get to share their truth, they get to listen to other people’s truth,” she said. “I think for a lot of people, it adds to their healing journey.” “Part of our job is to host these dialogues,” she said. “We wanted them to be as engaging as we could make them in these virtual settings. You don’t have the same tools… we adapt, and we use what’s available to us. Just the physical experience of our participants being in a virtual meeting, it takes a toll physically on people. We know the importance of encouraging people to get up and take care of themselves. We will try to introduce things that are physical.” Elizabeth Earl can be reached at [email protected]

AFN’s first virtual conference eyes 2020 Census, elections

The halls of the Dena’ina Civic and Convention Center in Anchorage will be much quieter this October without the buzz of the thousands of attendees at the annual Alaska Federation of Natives convention. Instead, they’ll be plugged in from home, watching, listening, and participating to the virtual presentations of the 54th year of the event. The Alaska Federation of Natives announced the 2020 convention would be completely virtual this year back in August, looking ahead to the risk posed by the coronavirus pandemic. The AFN convention regularly brings people from all over the state, including from many far-flung communities off the road system. The risk of getting a large group of people together in an indoor facility was too high, according to the AFN. As of Oct. 6, there was still no agenda available for the full convention. It will be available on social media, KNBA radio, GCI channel 1, ARCS, and 360 North. “It was a really tough decision, but the health and safety of our delegates, participants, and attendees comes first,” said Julie Kitka, AFN President, in a press release. “The high risk factors of holding a large, indoor meeting, with lots of Elders and delegates coming in from across Alaska, far outweigh the benefits of gathering in person.” Instead, like the First Alaskans Institute Elders and Youth Conference and so many other events this year, the organizers are converting the events to virtual ones. On Oct. 15 and 16, attendees will be able to watch pre-recorded videos and live presentations from Native leaders and elected officials as well as interactive panels and other workshops. House Speaker Bryce Edgmon, I-Dillingham, will deliver the keynote address. This year’s theme is “Good Government, Alaskans Decide,” based on the upcoming federal election on Nov. 3 and the 2020 Census, two issues heavily affecting federal actions in Alaska and, thus, many issues in Native communities. Delegates to the AFN also traditionally meet during the convention. This year, they’ll meet virtually as well. AFN is requesting that delegates register as soon as possible, but they can register up until 10 a.m. of the final day of the convention, as it is entirely virtual. According to the delegate packet, some things will change: for example, the live debates on the resolutions and co-chair election won’t happen as usual. The election will happen through an e-voting platform instead. Because of the difficulty of ensuring equal participation among participants on the online platform, the packet also outlines types of resolutions that won’t be accepted. For example, endorsement of candidates or ballot initiatives for 2020 will be considered, and Elders and Youth resolutions will be considered at the Dec. 8 AFN Board meeting. Instead of the regular cultural dance performances, AFN will air a compilation of performances called “Quyana Alaska” over the two evenings as well, from 6-9 p.m. on the AFN Convention virtual meeting app, 360 North and ARCs, or by webcast. Though there won’t be an in-person exhibition hall with booths, there will be a virtual exhibition component, where artists and crafters can sell their work in an online marketplace created for the convention. Elizabeth Earl can be reached at [email protected]

Boards of Fisheries, Game contemplate challenges of meeting season

In a fall littered with elections and other political fencing matches, two other political bodies are debating whether to meet at all or just punt until next year: the boards of Fisheries and Game. The boards, particularly the Board of Fisheries, host regulatory meetings every winter that bring stakeholders from all over the state together. Those are problem during the coronavirus pandemic, and the boards aren’t quite sure what to do about it. The Board of Fisheries, for one, is hoping that the situation will be better by the middle of next spring, when it’s still tentatively scheduling its meetings for the Prince William Sound, Southeast/Yakutat, and statewide shellfish meetings. While other governmental bodies have transitioned to meeting on Zoom and taking public comment via phone, the Board of Fisheries process doesn’t fit well into that model. For one, the stakeholders are spread all over the state, where internet connectivity isn’t always reliable or fast enough to cope with video meetings. For another, the board depends on public participation. Throughout the meeting, the board members gather comments from the public in attendance. During breaks, the public also regularly works directly with board members off the record on revisions to proposals or new language. These meetings all happen during the winter, indoors, and depending on the meeting, more than a hundred people may be gathered in a relatively small space for hours. Board of Fisheries Executive Director Glenn Haight told the board during a work session on Sept. 16 that when the staff surveyed the public about what to do, the results were mixed, but most people who attended meetings in the past were not in favor of virtual meetings. The board talked about potentially limiting attendance at an in-person meeting instead, but then staff would be faced with how to decide who got to come. On top of all that, many people who responded said they were fairly concerned about catching the COVID-19 virus as well, Haight said. “These are the middle of the winter, people in close proximity, frequent contacts with all of these participants day in, day out,” he said. “You as board members are speaking with almost everyone in the room … it’s this very organic and human interaction. It’s inconceivable, for those of us who have been to a board meeting, to get through a board meeting where no one gets sick.” The board members were divided on personal feelings but voted unanimously to pass a set of recommendations about how to scheduling meetings this winter. For now, they’ll be holding the Oct. 15-16 meeting via videoconference, at which time they’ll decide what to do about the remaining meetings in the 2020-21 meeting cycle, which are scheduled to start with the Prince William Sound meeting in Cordova on Dec. 11-17. Alaska Department of Fish and Game Commissioner Doug Vincent-Lang said the department had considered the risk to the community of Cordova in brining staff, board members, and other attendees to the community in the middle of a pandemic, especially with the limited health care resources in the small community. At the same time, though, he said it would be difficult for the department to push the meetings off entirely until next year. That would mean that the department would have to double up on meetings with those already scheduled for the next cycle, and that may not be possible with the existing budget. The board generally agreed with that assessment and generally didn’t like the idea of virtual meetings to replace full board meetings. Board member Gerard Godfrey said the quality of participation would not be the same. “Ideally, we should move forward in person if it’s possible and practical and feasible, because I think there are going to be too many essential factors lost in a virtual meeting,” he said. The board members passed a recommendation for staff to bring back recommendations for options regarding the later meetings at the October work sessions as well. Public comments were divided, with some urging the board to take up virtual meetings. The Board of Fisheries doesn’t currently have any way to telephonically or remotely participate other than submitting written comments ahead of time; neither does the Board of Game. Multiple commenters pointed out that even in a normal year, traveling to attend and participate in the meetings can be very expensive, and after a summer with a blighted economy, this year might not be possible at all. But, on the other hand, other commenters — including major fishing organizations like the Southeast Alaska Seiners, Southeast Alaska Fishermen’s Alliance, and the Sitka Tribe of Alaska — agreed with Haight and Fish and Game staff that a virtual meeting just wouldn’t work. Tina Fairbanks, the executive director of the Kodiak Regional Aquaculture Association, said in a letter that holding the full meetings virtually could exacerbate existing inequities. “Taking the process to an online format is likely to create even greater barriers to participation,” she said. “The individuals and communities likely to already be affected by barriers to participation are also likely to be disproportionately disadvantaged compared to more centrally-located, technologically advanced groups and individuals. Those that are most well versed in the board process and/or more well-connected to decision-makers will have even greater access, likely greater time, and thus greater influence on the process by the simple fact that so many others will be unable to participate in the process.” Rep. Louise Stutes, R-Kodiak, wrote in a letter to the board that she didn’t support hold the October work session either online or in person, as both have “insurmountable challenges.” She asked the board to postpone all meetings to see how the pandemic develops in the state. The board is scheduled to meet virtually on Oct. 15-16 for a worksession dealing with agenda change requests, non-regulatory proposals, and escapement goal reports from Fish and Game staff. Elizabeth Earl can be reached at [email protected]

Bizarre salmon season winds down short of state projections

Editor's note: This article has been updated to correct that 21.2 million pinks had been caught in Kodiak in the 2020 season. On top all the other effects of the coronavirus pandemic, it’s been a strange year for Alaska’s commercial salmon fisheries. As the fisheries are winding down, the total landings are about 17 percent behind the projections statewide. The Copper River sockeye run was a flop, as was the chum run statewide, and the silver salmon harvest was down everywhere except Kodiak and Bristol Bay. Prices were down, too, and processors had the extra expense and responsibility of keeping workers healthy in remote communities at close quarters. Copper River’s early season sockeye openers seemed to bode ill for the state. After just a few paltry catches, the Alaska Department of Fish and Game closed the fishery, hoping to boost escapement. The reds just never showed up. The sonar at Miles Lake stopped counting July 28 and met the minimum escapement, but without a commercial fishery. Sockeye runs started similarly slowly in Upper Cook Inlet, and stalled out when poor king salmon returns led to a complete closure for East Side setnets and restrictions for drift gillnets in mid-July. Bristol Bay largely shrugged off the poor news of the early season, though, and delivered close to the same number of landings as last year: just 9 percent fewer, with about 39.2 million sockeye landed. On top of that harvest, the Egegik, Ugashik, and Naknek-Kvichak districts exceeded their sockeye escapement goals. The Naknek River blew its goal away; more than 4.1 million sockeye passed that river before July 21, the highest escapement on record, according to ADFG. Bristol Bay is the heavyweight in the wild sockeye salmon world; more than three quarters of the sockeye harvested in the state come from there. So the prices posted there for the beginning of the season are usually an indicator for what the value of the harvest is going to be. Usually. “What we’ve seen when it comes to salmon prices is a general decline across the state and across all species,” said Garrett Evridge, an economist specializing in fisheries with the McDowell Group. “Because Bristol Bay is such a high value fishery, a lot of attention is paid to the base price that is posted there, and that was down about 50 percent from last year. There’s a lot of reasons for that.” One of those reasons is because of all the costs processors had to swallow related to the pandemic. Bringing in workers, quarantining them, testing them regularly, and providing protective equipment is expensive. But on top of that, the Bristol Bay sockeye hit in a big pulse rather than being spanned out. Because of capacity, the processors generally moved toward head-and-gutting rather than more added-value products, like filleting and roe, Evridge said. While Alaska fish are entering a more favorable market because the retail sector is recovering and some other stocks haven’t been producing, like Russian farmed fish, prices are generally lower for farmed fish, which may harm the retail prices for Alaska fish, he said. There’s also the economic pressure on consumers to consider. Overall, it paints a picture of uncertainty for Alaska seafood. “2020 is an unusual year, and the early indicators are one of a decline in value, but we’re really going to have to wait and see how it all shakes out in terms of price adjustments made throughout this winter,” he said. “We will have a better handle on what the final price is in the spring of next year.” The Bristol Bay Regional Seafood Development Association noted strong retail sales in a press release Sept. 8, praising the fleet and industry for its pandemic prevention measures “Grocery and seafood retailers took notice of this year’s harvest, with several new partners signing on for summertime promotions of fresh sockeye salmon from Bristol Bay,” the organization stated. “Eight retail chains containing over 1,200 individual stores hosted branded Bristol Bay Sockeye Salmon promotions or promoted salmon from Bristol Bay online, with many seeing significant sales gains.” Kodiak also saw a significantly better season than other regions. As of Sept. 3, about 21.2 million pink salmon had been harvested, more than three times the harvest in 2018. The sockeye harvest was behind the 2019 landings, but silvers were slightly ahead, with 377,000 silvers landed. The South Alaska Peninsula is doing better than last year for pink salmon, with about 4.1 million harvested, but is still tracking behind the multi-year averages. On the other hand, Chignik experienced one of its worst seasons on record. Both the early and late sockeye runs were extremely weak, prompting closures on the commercial fishery there. Up until ADFG pulled out the weir in the Chignik River on Aug. 27, only 309,702 sockeye had been counted for the entire season, which wasn’t enough for either run to meet its escapement goal. That’s the third year in a row for the early run, and ADFG doesn’t project that any remaining fish will help the late run meet its escapement goal. The chum run made its escapement in the Chignik Management Area made its escapement, but the pink run did not. Two years ago, the community received a federal disaster declaration for a similarly poor run and closure and is just now seeing funds distributed to cover that disaster. Elizabeth Earl can be reached at [email protected]

Hospitals keep up with COVID cases, but staff feel strain

Alaska’s health care providers are following the number of new of coronavirus infections with trepidation as it trends upward while they try to manage the cases and urge people to take precautions. As the summer draws to a close, Alaska is watching its hospitalizations for coronavirus infections steadily tick up. As of Aug. 25, there were 40 coronavirus-positive hospitalizations in the state, with six others under investigation. That’s the most it has been since the pandemic began in March, and since June, hospitalizations have been regularly reaching new highs. Hospital capacity remains adequate for now, with just more than half of the inpatient beds in the state occupied as of Aug. 25, according to the Alaska Department of Health and Social Services. Since the very beginning, officials have been taking on mitigation measures to try to keep hospitals and health care systems from being overwhelmed by COVID-19-positive patients. But as time goes on, hospitalizations have increased even as the overall infection curve seems to flatten and the state is heading into flu season and the start of school, when normal hospital occupancy goes up and staff becomes busier. That’s something health care executives are keeping a very close eye on, said Jared Kosin, the president and CEO of the Alaska State Hospital and Nursing Home Association. As long as Alaska can continue to ride the wave, hospitals should be able to handle it. “Our single biggest concern is if hospitalizations keep growing and hospitals stay this busy, and we have this influx of COVID patients that we’ve never seen before,” he said. At the beginning of the pandemic, there was significant concern about hospitals’ capacity for high-acuity patients with COVID-19 who required intense care and ventilators within an intensive care unit. Increasingly, COVID-19-positive patients in Alaska are not having to go to the ICU. Of the 40 who were reported hospitalized with the virus, only 25 percent were in the ICU, Kosin said. Hospitals decide on staffing partially based on their daily count of patients. They have some flexibility based on the level of care patients need, with some constraints; for example, ICU nurses typically have additional training. Patients hospitalized with COVID-19 who need ICU care may also require the services of a respiratory therapist, which places additional needs on hospital staffing. Keeping staffing levels up has long been an issue for hospitals, between employees taking leave, schedule coordination, sudden outbreaks of disease, and now the need to quarantine staff who may have been exposed to the coronavirus. Kosin said hospitals are constantly working on their emergency response plans for massive demands on their services, such as in the case of a plane crash or natural disaster. So far, they’ve been able to absorb the additional needs into their operations without having to activate surge plans. There are definitely strains on staff, though. Donna Phillips, the labor council chair with the Alaska Nurses Association, said wearing the PPE all day every day is uncomfortable, in part because of temperature. Hospital facilities for staff, like break rooms, may not be set up for social distancing, either, and moving patients around from area to area with all the equipment and protective gear requirements are additional time burdens for nurses who were busy to begin with. “Those kinds of things I think are super challenging,” she said. “It’s very different, the heat that is generated by wearing a mask all day is kind of difficult. I’m fascinated by how hot you are.” There’s also been the additional burden of bedside care for patients who can’t have visitors, either. Phillips said that’s something nurses will make time for, as they want to provide good bedside care, but it’s not necessarily something they get extra time for. “It is more work for the bedside caregiver … to keep everybody around them safe, and without having visitors in the hospital, you’re the only one who can calm that patient down and (still) have one, two, three, four, however many patients you have, so the only person that’s with (the patients) are the people working in the hospital,” she said. “Now that falls to the nurse, the social worker, the case manager, whoever else has time to hold that iPad so they can have a 10-minute conversation with their family once a day.” So far, there has not been a critical shortage of staff, but there may be some burnout among nurses, she said, especially as hospital census counts have gone back up with other patients beyond coronavirus patients. If infections and hospitalizations increase again enough to reverse some of the state’s reopening, it could have serious financial consequences for hospitals. This spring, as a preventive measure to conserve beds for the pandemic, hospitals cancelled all elective surgeries and other procedures. Unlike emergency services and some other acute services, elective surgeries are major moneymakers for hospitals, and cancelling them for several months meant a major financial hit, particularly for smaller and rural hospitals that operate on thinner margins. Health care providers, including hospitals, did receive some pandemic relief money, but Kosin said the uncertainty looming around infections and hospitalizations is concerning. Kosin said ASHNHA and other health care agencies are encouraging the public to take precautionary measures like washing hands, wearing masks and social distancing expressly with the intent of keeping hospitalizations down to a manageable level, especially as flu season approaches. “The fate of this is really in every individual’s hands,” he said. ^ Elizabeth Earl can be reached at [email protected]

Governor proposes lifting state CARES grant restrictions

Update: Lawmakers approved the Dunleavy administration's request to expand eligibility for the remaining AK CARES grant funds Thursday at a Legislative Budget and Audit Committee meeting in Anchorage. The changes, which take effect Aug. 31, allow businesses that recieved any amount of aid from the federal Small Business Administration's Paycheck Protection or Economic Injury Disaster Loan programs to also recieve AK CARES support, which is federal CARES Act money passed through the state. Businesses that are the owner's secondary source of income are also now eligible for AK CARES grants. Gov. Mike Dunleavy thanked committee members for approving the changes and said the adminsitration is working to quickly distribute the roughly $240 million that remains in the program in a statement from his office. Committee chair Rep. Chris Tuck, D-Anchorage, said he believes the administration could have eased the eligibility requirements for the state's federally funded small business aid program without legislative approval, but all of the potential roadblocks are now cleared for more businesses to access the funds. "It's been clear for months that the administration had the broad authority to get this relief to small businesses, but today's action eliminates any uncertainty," Tuck said. On Wednesday, the Municiaplity of Anchorage announced a second round of pandemic aid grants is now available for many small businesses in the city. The $5 million infusion to the city's Small Business Stablization Fund follows $1 million in grants that awarded to eligible businesses earlier this year. The latest round of grants are for businesses within the municipality that have been economically impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic, had less than $1 million in gross revenue in 2019 and had no more than 20 employees at any time last year. Eligible businesses generally must be the owner's primary source of income, according to criteria provided by Mayor Ethan Berkowitz's office. Successful Small Business Stabilization Fund applicants will recieve a $10,000 grant to be used on payroll, benefits, utilities, rent and other normal business expenses. Franchises, pawn shops, bars and marijuana shops are among the businesses not eligible for the grant funds. The grants will be processed by Cook Inlet Lending Center and the Small Business Stabiliation Fund application is available on the center's website. Applications will be accepted through Sept. 12, according to a municipal spokesman.   Original story: With about four months left before all the Alaska CARES Act money has to be out the door and roughly $240 million left unspent, the state is moving to change the eligibility to include small businesses that have received other federal pandemic aid. In a Revised Program Legislative noticed issued Aug. 20, the state notified the Legislature that it wants to open up the Alaska CARES pandemic relief funding to more businesses. Currently, small businesses that received more than $5,000 in Paycheck Protection Program funds or Economic Injury Disaster Loan funds are not eligible. The state estimates that more than 20,000 small businesses in the state received those funds and therefore couldn’t get any of the state funding. Between that and other initial caveats, including making commercial fishermen ineligible, the state was left with way more pandemic relief money available than it was distributing. Regional economic development groups, known as the Alaska Regional Development Organizations, began advocating for major changes to the program in June to the Legislature. In a press release issued Aug. 20, Gov. Mike Dunleavy said the state wants to provide businesses with tools to survive the ongoing impact of the pandemic. “AK CARES was crafted with the finest mesh to help those businesses who fell between the cracks when the door closed on them to other federal relief efforts,” Dunleavy said in a statement. “We accomplished opening that door, and we are now expanding that relief to other small Alaska businesses in real need.” The RPL letter and attachments can be found here.  The state’s revised RPL will go to the Legislative Budget and Audit Committee for review. The exact language is to allow the administration remove any additional state restrictions on businesses applying for the funding, including businesses that received those PPP or EIDL funds and businesses that are a secondary source of income. Companies based outside Alaska, companies with more than 50 employees would still be ineligible as will marijuana businesses, and amounts would still be limited to between $5,000 and $100,000.  Though businesses that received those PPP and EIDL funds would now be eligible, there’s a catch: they still wouldn’t be able to seek reimbursement for expenses already covered through another relief program. The deadline may be extended federally, but the RPL would provide the Alaska Department of Commerce, Community, and Economic Development more flexibility in administering the funds, according to the RPL documents. “This flexibility will allow DCCED to ensure AK CARES meets the needs of small businesses in the most effective and efficient manner possible,” the documents state. “This may include, but is not limited to, raising the number of full-time equivalent employees a business may have and still qualify for the program, disbursement processes, and allowable expenses. Accordingly, the DCCED will be able to adjust eligibility requirements and grant amounts as necessary to allow for full use of federal funds made available through the CARES Act to assist Alaska businesses.” The Legislature now has 45 days to act. No action would lead to automatic approval of the change. If the Legislative Budget and Audit Committee — scheduled to address the RPL’s at an Aug. 27 meeting — approves the change, it could go into effect immediately. If the committee doesn’t approve it, the administration could reassess, and if the reassessment shows that the change still benefits the state, could override the Legislature and put it into effect immediately. The Legislature’s recourse then would be to go into session and require a two-thirds majority vote to override it.  Legislators have by and large said they had wanted the administration to take action to ease the restrictions for small businesses to access the $290 million originally appropriated to the AK CARES program, but have not moved to make the changes themselves during campaign season. The clock is ticking down on the availability of pandemic relief funds. The federal CARES Act stipulated that all the funds had to be distributed by December 30, 2020. Many municipalities around the state have been busy administering their own local programs, but the state program has been slow to get money out since opening applications on June 1. Besides the eligibility roadblocks, there has also been a bottleneck for processing applications, as Credit Union 1 was the only financial application that agreed to process the applications. Applicants have reported waiting for weeks to even hear back. CU1 had distributed $32.3 million in AK CARES Grants with another $8.7 million in dispersals pending as of Aug. 21, according to spokeswoman Jessica Gallagher. The credit union had received 2,559 applications totaling roughly $115 million in requests since the program began in June. Gallagher wrote via email that the decision by DCCED leaders to move the online application to a portal on the department’s website, which went live Aug. 6, allows state officials to more easily bring on additional AK CARES operators to increase the program’s grant processing capacity. The credit union developed multiple resources, including tutorial videos for prospective applicants to review prior to submitting their documents but consistently found staff needed to assist applicants throughout the process because applying for grants isn’t something most small businesses do, she wrote. Gallagher added that each applicant is different and deserves their application to be reviewed carefully, which simply takes time, and CU1 officials welcome help from other entities. “Credit Union 1 understands the significant challenges these small businesses are facing right now, so the more operators working toward helping the distribution of AK CARES funds, the better,” Gallagher wrote. Alan Weitzner, executive director of the Alaska Industrial Development and Export Authority — the state development bank under DCCED tasked with finding AK CARES operators — said in an interview Aug. 25 that the state has partnered with the Juneau Economic Development Council for processing assistance and now has nearly 60 grant processors to CU1’s program staff of approximately 35. CU1 staff are focusing on the applications the credit union received prior to the application change, according to Weitzner, who said they have done a great job focusing on the needs of Alaskans. “It was never going to be fast enough” he said, given how many businesses are in need. The added help has cut the time needed to process an application roughly in half over the past several weeks, he added, and state officials are looking at bringing on even more help in the near future. The RPL notice issued Aug. 20 includes 12 items total. Of those, 11 are capital projects that total about $42 million in federal funds. This is around the time of year when federal receipt authority becomes active. The other 11 projects include money for the Alaska Department of Education and Early Development, the Department of Natural Resources, the Department of Fish and Game, the Department of Public Safety, and the Department of Environmental Conservation. The federal funds for those projects don’t require an appropriation of state match, according to the RPL documents. Small businesses statewide have been collectively wringing their hands about what’s going to happen in the fall and winter. This summer already forced a lot of belt-tightening around the state due to the lack of tourists and limited economic activity even within communities, and the fall and winter usually bring low economic activity even in ordinary times.  Elwood Brehmer contributed to this report. Elizabeth Earl can be reached at [email protected] 

ADFG releases draft disaster funds plan for Chignik salmon, P-cod

In the middle of two ongoing disasters — the coronavirus pandemic and extremely poor salmon runs in many regions of the state — some fishermen may finally see some money to help with disasters from 2018. The Alaska Department of Fish and Game is looking for comments on its draft distribution plans for relief funds connected to the Pacific cod disaster in the Gulf of Alaska and the Chignik sockeye salmon disaster, both in 2018. The comment periods for them are open until Aug. 14. Two years ago, Pacific cod fishermen were facing a dismal season, with two age classes of fish just missing. The P-cod fishery is highly valuable and high-volume in Alaska’s groundfish fisheries, accounting for about a fifth of the total groundfish catch in Alaska every year. But the increasingly warm temperatures in the Gulf of Alaska seem to be connected to declining fish survival. The survey numbers led the National Marine Fisheries Service to close the Gulf of Alaska Pacific cod fishery entirely for the 2020 season. The Secretary of Commerce confirmed the disaster declaration in October, and in early 2020, the National Marine Fisheries Service, or NMFS, set aside $24.4 million for the disaster. Under the current draft plan, harvesters would be eligible for 40 percent of that, with 51 percent going to pot catcher vessels, 29 percent to trawlers, 4 percent to jig vessels, 8 percent to longliners, 7 percent to longline catcher-processors, and 1 percent to trawl catcher-processors. Those values were calculated based on wholesale value among the six sectors, according to the plan. With the exception of the jig sector, which would be permit-based, ADFG is proposing for distribution to be vessel-based. Payments to individual vessels would be determined in tiers, based on the average landings over three years, calculated by the best two of three years. Processors would be eligible to receive 26 percent and communities for 4 percent, with community payments pro rata based on demonstrated loss, with a threshold of at least $10,000 of landings in a community. The remaining 30 percent would be set aside for research. With the changing temperature regime in the area, there are other repercussions, like changing phytoplankton and zooplankton. “Species at the top of the marine food chain, including Pacific cod, experienced lower recruitment (reduced juvenile survival) and increased mortality was documented in fishes, birds, and mammals,” the draft plan states. Funding would be available by bid, with preference for projects that help managers understand the causes of the 2018 cod crash, such as projects focusing on understanding the effect of warming temperatures on Pacific cod ecology and dynamics, early life history studies, and more information about stock spatial structure, migration patterns, and connectivity based on new genetics or genomics. A small portion, less than 1 percent, would be set aside for ADFG to administer the grants as well. In 2018, Chignik saw its worst sockeye run to date. Less than 150 fish were harvested as the run struggled to make escapement. NMFS designated $10.3 million in relief funds for that fishery, with 55 percent set aside for harvesters. Chignik is a fairly exclusive salmon fishery, with many of the local fishermen reliant on that cash income to pay for items like heating oil and gasoline for the winter. The relief funds are calculated to cover about 75 percent of the average ex-vessel value from 2015-17. ADFG’s draft plan would split that 55 percent into two groups, with 65 percent going to vessel owners and 35 percent going to crew. The plan divides payments for vessel owners into four tiers, based on the average landings for the best two out of three years. Crew, on the other hand, would get equal payments as long as they can provide information showing they had a license in 2018 and participated as crew in 2018. Processors would be eligible for 11 percent, with an option for tender vessels, and communities would be eligible for 3 percent. The Chignik Intertribal Coalition, or CIC, would be eligible for 1 percent under a subsistence designation, which would be intended to help the group provide other sustained options for subsistence activities. “Residents of the region are heavily dependent on the sockeye salmon runs to sustain their subsistence lifestyle,” the plan states. “The CIC may need to identify specific projects or infrastructure that support subsistence activities in the region prior to receiving funds from (Pacific States Marine Fisheries Commission). The funds could also be considered for direct payments to regional households to mitigate food security concerns.” Like the cod fishery, 1 percent would be set aside for ADFG administration and 30 percent of the money for Chignik would be designated for research. It’s not entirely clear what happened in 2018, as both the early and late runs failed. Projects ADFG is interested in grantees pursuing would be to help understand environmental factors and freshwater and marine production for both runs, investigate juvenile movement, growth, and habitat use in freshwater and estuaries, better salmon enumeration methods, and better understandings of the socioeconomic impacts of fishery disasters on subsistence communities like Chignik. Even as ADFG is working on the plans to distribute that funding, fishermen all over the state are struggling with ongoing disasters. Chignik is facing another extremely poor run, with restrictions this season in both the subsistence and commercial sockeye fisheries. Only 255,579 early run sockeye were counted on the Chignik River, less than even in 2018; as of Aug. 3, only 117,131 sockeye had been counted as well, less than half of the run in 2019. Prices are also a major concern for fishermen, as restaurants all over the U.S. face fluctuating restrictions and openings amid the coronavirus pandemic. With that uncertainty and the burden of the additional costs for COVID-19 mitigation this season, including quarantining crew arriving in the state and additional personal protective equipment, Alaska fishermen have felt the pinch this year. The state recently made CFEC permit holders eligible to apply for Alaska CARES Act funds, which can be applied toward eligible expenses and impacts related to the pandemic. Elizabeth Earl can be reached at [email protected]

Bristol Bay remains lone bright spot for sockeye harvest across state

The statewide salmon harvest is ticking up as the summer goes on, but most of that is in Bristol Bay. In most of the rest of the state, the harvest has been disappointing. As of July 20, Bristol Bay fishermen had landed about 35.8 million sockeye, which is slightly more than the preseason forecast of 34.5 million. Overall, 52.6 million sockeye have returned to the bay in 2020, which is also ahead of the preseason forecast of just less than 49 million. Both are less than the 2019 numbers, when the runs significantly outperformed preseason forecasts. Most of those were harvested in the Naknek-Kvichak and Egegik districts in the eastern bay, with 12.8 million and 11.5 million sockeye harvested respectively. The Nushagak District has seen 8.6 million sockeye landed, followed by the Ugashik District with about 1.8 million. The Togiak District has landed 161,438 as of July 20, according to the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. West side commercial area management biologist Tim Sands says one thing holding up Nushagak harvest early in the season was the king salmon escapement there. Like other rivers across the state this year, the king salmon run there was less than biologists would like to see, which limited commercial fishing opportunities. “We were very conservative here for quite a while because of Nushagak River king salmon,” he said. “We didn’t make the king salmon escapement last year, we didn’t make it again this year.” But once the king salmon run was mostly over, they were able to get down to fishing. The Naknek-Kvichak, Egegik, and Nushagak districts lined up this year for harvest, with more than 2 million of them hitting the processors the weekend of July 4. But overall, the Nushagak has felt a little strange this year, Sands said. “We’re looking at the fifth-largest harvest in the Nushagak District ever, and it just didn’t feel that way,” he said. “(It was) really frenzied, and then quiet, then frenzied, then quiet. Compared to the last three years, when it picked up and was steady for a long time, it just seemed different this year.” The prices so far aren’t likely to be what they were in the last few years, either. Early posted prices on the South Peninsula were about 60 cents per pound. Bristol Bay’s prices may change a little, but that 60-cent price point is a little more than a third of last year’s average price of $1.54 per pound. Prices are also subject to fluctuation with the openings and closings of restaurants due to concerns about the pandemic. But the bay is doing better than everywhere else in the state for sockeye. Kodiak fishermen have landed about 396,000 sockeye for one of the worst sockeye harvests in decades; Cook Inlet is up to 493,000; and the Alaska Peninsula/Aleutian Island is about 1.5 million. Prince William Sound landings are about 885,000, or less than half of what last year, largely due to a disappointing Copper River run that led to shutdowns early on in the season. Cook Inlet is also having a slow harvest season, with the Kenai River’s sockeye run trickling in and disappointingly few king salmon numbers forcing managers to rein in the commercial fleet. The Kenai River isn’t likely to meet its king salmon escapement goals, according to Fish and Game’s projections, which means the setnet fleet is limited to 24 hours of fishing time per week by emergency order only. If the sportfishery for kings closes entirely, the East Side setnet fleet will as well. The Kasilof River run of sockeye is performing well, with enough fish already in the river to meet escapement despite both commercial fisheries and a 24-hour personal-use dipnet fishery at the mouth of the river, and managers have been using the 600-foot fishery in the area to help control escapement. Prince William Sound is transitioning to pink salmon now and so landings are about 5.8 million of them so far, only a little behind the 2018 catch by this date. The wild run forecast for the whole of the sound is about 4.4 million, and the Prince William Sound Aquaculture Corp. and Valdez Fisheries Development Association are each expecting about 14.6 million hatchery pinks to return. Kodiak’s pink harvest is significantly up from this time 2018, with about 554,000 of them landed, and Southeast is slightly ahead, with 477,000 landed. The pink salmon harvest pace overall is largely on par with what it was around this time in 2018, according to an update from the McDowell Group. “The peak of the statewide pink harvest is typically the last week of July or first week of August,” the update states. “According to the ADF&G harvest projection, PWS will contribute most pink production this year followed by Southeast and Kodiak.” Southeast’s salmon season has largely been disappointing except for king salmon, though that overall catch is fairly small. About 117,000 king salmon have been landed in Southeast, which is about 10 percent above last year’s catch at this time, according to the McDowell Group harvest update. The chum salmon run was forecast to be about 3.9 million from the Northern Southeast Regional Aquaculture Association, about 2 million from Southern Southeast Regional Aquaculture Association and about 1.6 million from Douglas Island Pink and Chum, Inc. By all metrics, those runs are underperforming. Southeast fishermen had landed about 705,000 chum as of July 21, according to ADFG. Some of those runs to hatcheries are fall chum, but inseason tracking from Southern Southeast Regional Aquaculture Association shows the runs are behind. Through July 17, chum landing were about 69 percent off the five-year average, according to the McDowell Group. Kodiak is an exception, with landings ahead of last year for chum, pink, coho and kings, according to the McDowell Group. Elizabeth Earl can be reached at [email protected]

Emerging mariculture industry takes setback from market losses

For the past few years, mariculture has been the hot topic of innovation in fisheries in Alaska. But when the coronavirus pandemic hit, many of the budding farms took a huge financial hit to their operations. In the past five years, Alaska has seen a boom in the number of applications for mariculture operations, focusing on oysters, geoduck clams and kelp. Their main outlet has been in restaurants and wholesale food service, where they’ve been able to carve a niche for sustainably grown Alaska seafood and supply markets both in the state and the Lower 48. But the coronavirus pandemic closed restaurants across most of the United States in March, and large events or group cafeterias that required catering or food service remain mostly off the table. That left the mariculture farms in Alaska with a much more limited market but still a lot of product to move. For Ketchikan-based Hump Island Oyster Co., it’s going to be a tough year. Owner Trevor Sande said the company has mostly sold its oysters to wholesalers who distribute to food service businesses and retailers, with some going to local sources. They also grow a small amount of kelp, but the majority of the farm produces oysters. With seven years of shellfish growing under their belts, Hump Island has been increasing its business size every year, and this year’s plummet leaves them with a lot of oysters that don’t have anywhere to go. “It’s going to be a tremendous disaster, financially,” he said. “We have six to seven million oysters in the water right now. We’re just going to need to keep borrowing money to keep them alive and keep up with the husbandry.” Sande said this year they were planning to expand their tours, pulling in more cruise ship passengers and visitors to Ketchikan. But with cruise ships docked and the Canadian border closure limiting ferry visitors coming from Prince Rupert, Ketchikan is quiet. Oyster farmers may be getting hit twice, too. Sande said his farm, like many others in the state, uses floating rafts and trays to cultivate oysters because of a lack of suitable tidelands in the Ketchikan area. That means that in order to build capacity, farmers have to first build more rafts with trays. That costs money, and without anywhere for the oysters to go, it’s either throw out more or swallow the cost for more infrastructure. A survey conducted by Alaska SeaGrant in February and March showed that many farms had to lay off staff after the mandates sharply reduced revenue. About 43 percent of respondents said their revenue was down by more than half, and more than a third had laid off employees. The vast majority cited restaurant closures as the reason, though about half said labor shortages or reduced export opportunities were also responsible, according to the survey. The winter months are mostly kelp harvest. Oysters are harvested in the summer, and while some restaurants have reopened, mandates vary across the country and restaurant sales are still down. Some oyster farmers cited concerns about wasted harvest due to labor shortages, according to the survey. That’s not been Sande’s experience so far in Ketchikan, where he said plenty of people are out of work because of the downturn in the tourism industry. “Ketchikan’s been so devastated by the lack of any cruise ships,” he said. “If I could afford it, I ‘d hire 20 of (the displaced tourism industry workers). We do most of our work from May through September.” Getting a mariculture farm off the ground is expensive, both for the working capital for business expenses and the permitting. But in early 2019, so many people had applied that the state was backlogged nearly a year-and-a-half on approving applications. There are still some that haven’t been processed, and once they are, there may be a lull in people being willing to lay out cash to build up farms, said Julie Decker, executive director of the Alaska Fisheries Development Foundation. “Long-term, I don’t think it’s going to see a significant impact, because there’s still good demand for food products,” she said. “They’re still sort of an essential item … They’re being sold in different markets in different ways, but there’s still a demand for food.” One thing that may rise from the difficulty in the supply chain for mariculture businesses is a diversification of products, but even that takes time and money. Rebranding, reinventing, and remarketing can be challenging, Decker said. While demand in restaurants has been down, demand in retail has been up during the course of the pandemic. Mariculture businesses that have heavily relied on restaurants or wholesalers may have to diversify, similarly to how the salmon fisheries had to change to frozen fillets from canned after farmed fish began challenging their market. For some products, shifting to frozen or online has been easier than others—for example, kelp farms have been providing product to Juneau’s Barnacle Seafoods, which has been selling shelf-stable products like salsa and seasoning for some time, Decker said. “A live product like a live oyster (or a ) half-shell oyster has more challenges than some other products to shift quickly. Transportation is hard for online sales unless you can get to a frozen product,” Decker said. “When you put all your eggs in one basket, when there’s a disruption, you’re hit really hard.” Ocean farming has been attractive for Alaskans, particularly for fishermen in regions who have increasingly seen their fisheries restricted due to low abundance and the cost to participate continue to rise. “It’s hard to say how drastically this will impact development in the next couple of years,” she said. “Sometimes crises force people to do things different, or drive them toward change faster than they would have otherwise. It’s hard to tell exactly how it’ll turn out.” Sande said the farm is luckily not his family’s sole income, and they’re working on some other options, like canning smoked oysters, to take care of some product. At the end of next year, though, if the farm’s not making money, he said they’ll make a decision about whether to keep going. ^ Elizabeth Earl can be reached at [email protected]

Salmon fishing off to a slow start statewide

Salmon harvests statewide are slow so far as the fisheries head toward their usual high points in July. So far, fishermen have landed about 5.8 million salmon. That’s less than half of the 2018 numbers by the same date, when 14 million had been landed. Much of that is due to poor sockeye returns, particularly in the Copper River area, though everywhere is slower than previous years, including Bristol Bay. The Copper River and Bering River districts continue their shutdown this week due to unexpectedly low sockeye returns. The return to the Copper River is not living up to the preseason forecast, with only 378,058 sockeye through the Miles Lake weir as of June 29, compared to more than 696,828 by the same date last year. The forecast called for 1.5 million sockeye to return to the Copper River this year. In an emergency order issued June 27, the Alaska Department of Fish and Game noted that the escapement through June 25 is about 85,000 fish behind projections, and the surveys of the Copper River Delta are significantly behind estimated ranges. “[Through June 25], the sonar count is the 14th lowest on record (1978-2020),” the emergency order states. “Cumulative commercial harvest this year is the fourth lowest harvest to-date in the last 50 years. “ As of June 27, fishermen across Prince William Sound had harvested about 495,000 sockeye, less than half of the 2019 number of about 1.1 million. Chum salmon harvests are down about 44 percent as well, and king salmon harvests are down about 75 percent, according to a harvest update from the McDowell Group. Fishermen in the Copper River district have harvested 81,228 sockeye, according to the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. Pink salmon have yet to show up in the Sound in large numbers. Bristol Bay is also somewhat behind, though there’s still time for the harvest to pick up. Last year was another banner one for the Bay, and 2020 is forecast to be more modest—around 34.6 million available for harvest with a total run of 46.6 million, according to ADFG. But even for that prediction, harvest is pretty slow; only about 1.5 million sockeye have been harvested, about 78 percent less than last year. Andy Wink, the executive director of the Bristol Bay Regional Seafood Development Association, noted that other seasons that ended up having exceptionally large harvests started slowly as well. “We also had a slow start in 2012, 2015 and 2016; those last two ended up producing over 35 million sockeye harvested in the Bay,” he said. “We’re between 10 and 15 percent of our way through the normal harvest curve. There’s still plenty of time to catch up.” One of the major pressures on the Bay has been concern about COVID-19 infections, both spreading in vulnerable communities and in processors, where they could bring the fishery to a swift halt. Last week, a dozen seafood workers in Dillingham tested positive, though they were quarantined and not spreading it in the community. Overall, there were 19 nonresident cases in the combined Bristol Bay and Lake and Peninsula boroughs, according to the Alaska Department of Health and Social Services. By contrast, there were only two resident cases in the combined Bristol Bay and Lake and Peninsula boroughs. Wink said the protocols the industry has set up to prevent the spread of the virus seem to be working. “We haven’t seen really any community spread thus far in the Bay, and that’s really encouraging. A lot of the fishermen and processing workers came in in early June. I think one of the concerns was were we going to see transmission of the virus when they were in the plane, in the boatyards … by this time, we would have seen that if that had happened,” he said. “So far so good. We’re not out of the woods yet, but I think all of the precautionary measures and all of the work that went into setting up the season are working.” Commercial fishing is mandated as an essential industry, with long lists of protocols for how fleets and processors should work this year and prevent the spread of the virus. Of the 64 nonresident cases identified last week, 43 were in seafood workers. All of them were quarantined prior to testing positive, according to the DHSS. Upper Cook Inlet’s fishermen are off to a slow start as well, with 61,904 salmon landed so far. About 59,000 of them are sockeye. That’s down about 73 percent from last year, according to the McDowell Group. The Kenai subdistrict setnetters have yet to come online, but they’ll be restricted based on the prohibition of bait in the Kenai River late-run king salmon fishery as well. The Kasilof River is tracking ahead of last year, with 79,292 fish passing the sonar as of Monday, according to Fish and Game. The Kenai River sonar went online July 1. The sockeye being caught in the Kenai mainstem so far are largely Russian River sockeye, which are headed upstream to spawn near Cooper Landing. That sportfishery opened mid-June with additional area: Fish and Game opened the sanctuary area near the confluence of the two rivers early. The sanctuary doesn’t usually open until the late run or if the run is particularly large. Upper Cook Inlet sportfish area management biologist Colton Lipka said opening up that area spaced out the anglers more along the fishery. “This year, we saw what we needed to see, and I think it served everybody’s interest to spread out a little more up there,” he said. “This is a fairly new tool that we have since we have a few more years of data.” The weir at Lower Russian Lake has counted 13,655 sockeye so far, a fraction of what it counted last year on the same date. However, that 13,655 is about 8,400 fish lower than the lower end of the escapement goal for the early run, and there are still two weeks left before it transitions to the late run. Last year was an anomalously huge run, Lipka said. They ended up with nearly 126,000 sockeye on the early run, about triple the upper end of the escapement goal. “If we actually look at the average early run escapement, last 10 years, it’s 40,000,” he said. “Last year’s was 125,000. The next biggest year behind 2019 was back in 2002, and that was 85,000. Last year was a true exception. It’s awesome to see those years; what we’re looking at this year was a little more back towards normal. It does seem like the run is a little more spread out.” Effort on the Russian so far has been reportedly good on weekends but light on week days compared to a normal year, meaning it’s mostly residents using their weekends to fish as opposed to the normal load of tourists. Lipka cautioned anglers that there have been reports of brown bear activity on the road side of the river this year and that anglers should keep their gear and fish close. Elizabeth Earl can be reached at [email protected]

Tourism operators across Alaska ponder how to salvage season

The ice is going out on the teal surface of Kenai Lake, the centerpiece of Cooper Landing and the source of the Kenai River. In a normal year, gaggles of early-season fishermen are there with their drift boats ready to take advantage of it. After all, the local get first chance at the famous Kenai River rainbow trout, and they may not want to compete with the cosmopolitan crowds of tourists that pack the lodges, bed and breakfasts, and campgrounds of the small Kenai Peninsula town from Memorial Day through the late fall. But 2020 isn’t like most years. The coronavirus pandemic has changed virtually every aspect of the Alaskan economy over the last two months, but perhaps none more so than the tourism industry. The summer tourism season is short but profitable across the state and particularly concentrated in Southeast and Southcentral, where many travelers head to communities like Cooper Landing to get a wilderness experience like fishing, bear viewing, or backcountry hiking. For many of these communities, tourism is the only major industry, with year-round jobs scarce and little permanent industry in the area. “We’re getting a couple bookings every day, but we are getting a couple cancellations every day, too,” said Bob Rima, owner of Drifter’s Lodge in Cooper Landing. “(Our clients) are from the Lower 48, and they’re unsettled. They are scared. They don’t want to fly.” Normally booked out months ahead, Drifter’s Lodge has watched its May and June bookings dwindle. Some clients are holding out, hoping the restrictions will be relaxed and the mandatory quarantine for out-of-state travelers will be lifted, but others are cancelling or rescheduling. For some clients, it’s the second rescheduling. Last year, heavy smoke from the Swan Lake Fire on the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge limited business in Cooper Landing as well. Like some other businesses, Drifter’s Lodge has chosen to stay open with the hope of some level of visitation this season. With assistance from the federal Paycheck Protection Program, part of the CARES Act providing financial relief to businesses affected by the pandemic, the lodge hired on staff and plans to continue providing services. But the program is designed to stop employers from laying off employees and so covers their pay, but only that. Figuring out how to get employees from the Lower 48 to Alaska has been a challenge, too, as they have to quarantine when they get to the state. It’s not entirely clear who is responsible for paying for the quarantine, Rima said. Getting a loan is tough right now, too, with little to no income available with very few clients able to come, Rima said. “This is going to be a tough year for a lot of people on the (Kenai) Peninsula for sure,” he said. “Most places, you’re lucky to have one or two months of reserves.” There are still some bookings coming in, but there remain a lot of questions for businesses in the area. At the Inn at Tern Lake, near Moose Pass, most of the June bookings have been cancelled or moved, but some others have come in for later in the season, said Jeff Hetrick, who owns the Inn at Tern Lake near Moose Pass with his wife Rose. “We don’t know,” he said. “We’re optimistic by nature, but we’re on standby, just like everybody else. Hopefully by 2021, we’ll be back to normal.” Cooper Landing, with its predominantly outdoor recreation-based tourism economy, is far from alone in its economic struggle this year. Talkeetna is facing the dual hits of an anemic visitor season and the cancellation of the 2020 Denali climbing season, for which Talkeetna serves as the primary base camp. Guides and tour companies in Girdwood, the hub for visitors at the edge of the Chugach National Forest, are facing a very slow season, and the Hotel Alyeska is temporarily closed until May 31, 2020. Operators in other communities, like Seward and Valdez, are planning for abridged seasons or are working on deals to attract Alaskans until out-of-state visitors may be able to come. While the loss of the majority of cruise traffic has been a major hit for the communities of Southeast Alaska, the region does have its independent travelers and still hopes to see some later in the season, said Dan Kirkwood, general manager of Pack Creek Bear Tours in Juneau. “Despite (the COVID-19) concerns, we still have this incredibly awesome state that we live in that people want to come see,” he said. “We are tracking the state mandates on mitigating the spread, and we are hopeful that we will find a way to do right by our community.” Pack Creek Bear Tours transports clients from Juneau to Pack Creek on Admiralty Island by float plane. The company is still figuring out the logistics of how to transport and serve clients while following social distancing guidelines. Even if the state lifted the mandatory quarantine policy and visitors were able to come again this summer, it wouldn’t be the same season it was going to be before the outbreak of the pandemic in March. For one, the loss of the bulk of cruise ship passengers significantly scales back the number of tourists coming to the state overall; second, even if Alaska relaxes its restrictions, other states may not, and people may still not feel comfortable traveling. Adding that to the economic harm done by the pandemic shutdowns, which will likely leave people with less disposable income to take vacations for some time, the Alaska tourism industry may have to tighten its belt for more than just this season. Some of the members of the outdoor industry are looking for a little more support to make it through, though not just in grants. In a letter to Alaska’s congressional delegation sent in late April, a group of businesses through the Alaska Outdoor Alliance requested a $2 billion aid package spread over five years specifically targeted toward the Alaska outdoor industry. “We know there’s a lot of furloughed employees, and we know things aren’t going to bounce back; the cruise ships aren’t coming, so they’re not going to bounce back to even last year’s levels,” said Lee Hart, the AOA’s executive director. “We just want to get people back to work, with real wages (so) that they can pay rent, buy groceries.” Modeled on the Civilian Conservation Corps, an outdoor work program developed during the Great Depression, the stimulus would pay living wages to workers who worked on recreation and restoration projects in the state. Guides and outdoor industry companies, who know their areas well and are currently short on work, would be able to use their equipment and expertise to improve trail projects in their areas while being paid for work, Hart said. The request is for the conservation corps portion to last three years and provide $750 million. The other part of the request, spread over five years, would focus on deferred maintenance projects. The organization is looking to existing grant infrastructure for its requests to speed up the process, Hart said. In planning for the program, the federal agencies said they had desire to scale up the work if they had the funding, she said. Kirkwood said the program’s use of local guides and operators would make sense, as they have knowledge of the areas in which they operate and a stake in the outcome. In the case of Pack Creek Bear Tours, the guides are comfortable working in close proximity to brown bears in a remote area. “I think that’s where the local knowledge (comes in),” he said. “To a lesser extent, if your company runs a tour on the trails, then your company has a real investment in that infrastructure.” Elizabeth Earl can be reached at [email protected]

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